Decisiveness: Cornerstone of Leadership

Chuck MisslerIf there is one thing that defines a leader, it is decisiveness.  This is that indispensable ability to weigh the facts, make a plan, and then execute it at the right moment.  When the heat is on and somebody needs to act, it is the leader who looks at everything, chooses a course, and moves forward without looking back.

Chuck Missler, US Naval Academy grad (class of 1956, pictured above), once said, “Weak men hurt people.”  He made this statement in 1982, at a gathering where he spoke on business ethics.  Chuck made his living as a professional executive in the Defense and semiconductor industries for over 30 years.  He happened to be teaching a group of Christians to be ethical and stable in their business dealings.  And chief among these qualities are decisiveness and keeping one’s word.  “The sanctity of a commitment.”  At the time of this talk, he was CEO of Western Digital Corporation.  A proven leader with ballast.

You will never get anywhere being wishy-washy.  Vacillation and inability to come to a decision are fatal to leadership.  In contrast, people will follow someone who knows where he is going and knows how to get there.  And get there with dispatch, knowing that time is too precious to waste with “analysis paralysis.”

When the pressure’s on, the leader cannot afford to buckle.  Time, money, confidence, respect; all are lost when someone in a position to do the right thing can’t make a decision or takes too much time so doing.

It is far better to make ten decisions and have seven of them prove to be good decisions rather than to wait and wait and only make two good decisions.  The reason is that although both decisions turned out to be good, the effect of waffling has compromised your influence.  Playing it safe often makes your followers feel unsafe.    Why can’t he make up his mind?  Are we staying or going?

Your high calling as a leader—whether as a husband, business leader, captain of a sports team, etc.–means being decisive.  You cannot afford to be ambivalent in the clutch.  It is charming when we watch Fiddler on the Roof and see it with Tevye the Dairyman.  In real life, vacillating is uninspiring at best and dangerous at worst.

Being decisive and stable brings a host of benefits not only to the leader but to those who follow him or her.  You earn respect.  You inspire those watching.  In the marketplace, if you can weigh the facts and act quickly, you’re worth more money than those who can’t.  If you’re a military leader, you will undoubtedly save more lives than you lose.

Here’s the challenge.  This next month, make a calculated effort to make quicker decisions.  Do this with anything from where to go out to eat to vacation plans to starting a new growth project, like a blog or exercise program.  Weigh the evidence, do a cost/benefit analysis and then act.

You’re going to be pleasantly surprised.

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It’s Not “Just Practice,” So Keep Growing

CF SW17I read a story recently that, while sad, was not at all surprising.  Former NBA standout Allen Iverson has fallen on hard times.  He made millions but is now broke.  It is a tale oft-repeated about people in popular entertainment (and make no mistake, professional athletes are, in fact, entertainers).

I recall watching his now-famous press conference–video gone viral–after he’d been fined by his team for missing practice.  He repeated over and over again, “It’s just practice.”  In other words, “when I’m playing the game, I’ll be all there.”

Really?  Try selling that to Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, or Magic Johnson.

God alone knows how this capable man went from riches to rags.  His career spanned the period of the mid 1990’s to 2010.  It’s a sad story, one that could happen, I suppose, to any of us.

I’m going to be candid.  I can’t help but wonder if Iverson’s dismissive attitude towards practice didn’t play some part in things going south for him.  Again, God only knows.  But ideas and mentalities have consequences.  Blowing off practice or refusing to run out an infield fly ball in baseball (something we’d have gotten benched for in the 1970’s) says a lot about a person.

I get bored very easily.  As a guitarist and pianist, I’m not content playing the same things over and over again.  Stale food.  No thanks.  So I have to do things that keep me growing and sounding interesting.  I don’t want to bore my wife or anybody else with ears.

In recent years, I’ve been doing some different things that have helped me play and think differently on the guitar.  And I’ve been having a blast doing it as well.   So I thought I’d share the wealth.

Play in alternate tunings.  A few Autumns ago, I got totally inspired watching Jimmy Page demonstrate how he plays Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” to The Edge (U2) and Jack White (The White Stripes) in the outstanding documentary It Might Get Loud.  Jimmy came up with this years ago while playing around in an alternate tuning: DADGAD.  Operative phrase: Playing around.  It’s profoundly simple and cool.  (I’ve been playing “Kashmir” a lot and my wife digs it.).  With alternate tunings, you get a lot of voicings not available in standard tuning.  If you’re into this, learn a song by artists who’ve used alternate tunings a lot—Crosby, Stills & Nash, Led Zeppelin, Phil Keaggy, Pierre Bensusan, The Rolling Stones.  Better yet, create your own.

Play musical theatre.  A good deal of Broadway music is very involved, sophisticated and colorful.  Usually written by brilliant composers on the piano.  As a guitarist, you will find this extremely challenging.  Here’s something fun—learn really complex chords at various positions all over the neck.  You’ll love the colors.  Pick a show you like (A Chorus Line, Wicked, West Side Story, etc.) and go from there.

Learn a song by one of your heroes.  Eric Johnson used to learn—and I mean really learn—a song a month by Jimi Hendrix.  Eric would take the song apart like a car engine and study it.  His own readings of Hendrix classics are quite good.  Years ago, I’d learn songs by sitting next to the record player and picking up the needle, over and over and over again, and repeating the song until I’d nailed it.  Digital technology makes this so much easier.  Whether your hero is Stevie Ray Vaughan or Joe Satriani or Tommy Emmanuel, find something you love and learn it cold.  You’ll find that eventually you’ll develop your own voice and style.  It’s what millions of guitarists have done for the past sixty years.  Join their ranks.

Practice.  Yes, proficiency on a musical instrument involves drudgery.  Faithfulness outside of the eye and applause of the crowd.  Your fidelity to practice will absolutely show when you hit the court.

Now go play.  And remember:

It’s not just practice.

Afraid? Take the Plunge

AfraidI grew up in the country, working and playing on farms.  There’s scarcely anything more adventurous for a kid than the things he can find to do on a large dairy farm.  Climbing silos.  Throwing apples at passing cars.  Pitching manure and playing in it.  Some of it was permitted.  A lot of it was not and we got yelled at from time to time.  But it was great fun.

When you are young, you don’t always use your head.  Some of our exploits involved jumping out of hay mows and walking on really high beams above cattle, mangers and bales of hay and straw.  I have to admit I got anxious at times.

The key to doing these things—which were quite scary for a boy—was simply doing them.  If you sat at the edge of the mow or straddled a beam and thought about it, your courage would flag and you wouldn’t take the chance.  A victory for brains; a defeat for derring-do.  (We were young and dumb, so daredevilry usually won the day.)

Our heroes in those days were people like Evel Knievel and Billy Jack.  One can understand why.

In 1988, a book appeared with the provocative title Feel The Fear And Do It Anyway.  Susan Jeffers authored this important work.

Feel it….but then do it.

Jack Canfield has referred to this book and the principle it highlights.  I’ve adopted the idea with good results.

We all face fears and anxieties over different things.  For some it’s flying.  For others, public speaking.  Most of us shy away from difficult conversations, whether in sales or conflict resolution.  The key is to own the fact that you feel the emotion of fear but decide to do the thing you fear anyway.  And then do it.  Fear is, after all, a feeling.  It may have validity.  I have a good friend, a career Army guy who’s jumped out of a lot of planes.  There is real fear launching out of a C-130.  Good sense for a paratrooper is to make sure his parachute has been properly prepared.  But he still jumped.  Over and over and over again.

Most of us will not be leaping out of moving aircraft or tackling pythons.  But we can all grow by feeling it.  Then doing it.

It’s really simple.

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Never Forget

Never ForgetI lived in Southern Lower Michigan until the summer of 1987.  During the 1980’s, I developed an interest in–nay, a love for–all things Jewish.  A portion of this curiosity emerged as I learned Hebrew and studied the Hebrew Bible as a young Christian man.  Part of this affection for Judaica was no doubt because my late stepfather, of blessed memory, was Jewish.  And some of this came organically, as I learned the history of the Second World War and was introduced to people like Elie Wiesel.

I was fascinated and moved.  We lived not far from a very large Jewish community, centered in Southfield, MI, a suburb of Detroit.

A segment of my weekly routine was this: I drove twenty-four miles to the Borders bookstore in Beverly Hills MI every Friday and bought a copy of The Jewish News, a weekly publication highlighting the events and concerns of the Greater Detroit Jewish community, at that time about 80,000 strong.

As my love for all things Jewish grew, I attended Jewish events in the Southfield area.  I well remember a gathering at a local high school with Congressman Sander Levin highlighting the plight of then-Soviet Jewry and their hopes for making aliyah to Israel.  It was Congressman Levin who urged us to read The Abandonment of the Jews by David S. Wyman, detailing our country’s callous refusal to give safe harbor to European Jews during the War.

It was only a matter of time until I made my way to the Jewish Community Center on Maple Road.  The place enthralled me.  As a Christian man, I felt I was connecting with something much larger than I when visiting the campus.  I attended a play there, The Diary of Anne Frank.  I perused the bookstore.  I loved it.

One of the prime features of the JCC at that time was the Holocaust Memorial Center, an adjunct to the larger community building itself. Admission was free and the architecture of the building sloped downward.  It was a fitting metaphor in architecture.  As one descended the darkened walkway of the Memorial, filled with re-creations and actual relics from the Shoah, one descended, as it were, into some history of the horror of the Third Reich and its leader, Adolph Hitler.

It was a numbing experience, to say the least.  I visited there three or four times before it moved to its new and expanded location in nearby Farmington Hills.  I’ve visited the new Memorial twice.  It is much larger than the original HMC and beautiful in a dark sort of way.

What one comes away with after such visits, among other things, is this:  Never underestimate the power of hatred couched in shrewd rhetoric.  Six million Jews perished in World War II because one man was able to convince Europe that the Jewish race was a contagion.

We must never, ever forget.

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The Art of Tony Bennett

800px-Tony_Bennett_in_2003I grew up in the Seventies, a child of the period which gave birth to classic rock.  A lover of music, I became a musician in 1976, taking up the guitar.  My heroes were the big acts of the day—Led Zeppelin, Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Elton John, the Rolling Stones, and more.

My musical palette grew as I was exposed to some of the favorites of my parents—Johnny Mathis, Neil Diamond, Peter Paul & Mary, and Barbra Streisand.  When my late stepfather, a Jewish man from the South Bronx—of blessed memory, came into our lives, my love of music deepened even more, adding some of his favorites—Frank Sinatra, the great Broadway musicals and the many artists from the period of the Great American Songbook.

And Tony Bennett.

I had the opportunity to take my stepfather to see Tony Bennett in 1999.  Tony and his band—the Ralph Sharon Trio were at a popular concert venue about twenty minutes from his home in lower Michigan.  My stepfather had multiple sclerosis, so I drove him and wheeled him around to see this artist whom he loved so much.  And I had grown to love and appreciate him as well.  Plus, I really enjoy the piano playing of Ralph Sharon. So it was a special evening indeed.

Tony Bennett, who Sinatra called his favorite singer, has always loved the classic popular music songwriters.  People like Johnny Mercer, George & Ira Gershwin, Gus Kahn, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter.  Their work is timeless and the songs fabulous.  These treasures are regularly given new life by people as diverse as Rod Stewart, Linda Ronstadt, and Michael Bublé.

What is remarkable about Tony Bennett is his uncompromising attitude towards his music.  “I won’t sing a bad song,” he has said.  That resolve was tested in the Seventies and Eighties when rock and disco were all the rage.  His career went into something of a decline.  He was urged by the record companies to “go with the flow” of current popular music trends.  Compromise.  Give in a little bit; times have changed.

Tony would have none of it.  He believed in the songs he sang and the era in which they were birthed.  He has always been a class act—gracious to his audience and bands, performing always in a suit and looking fantastic.  And always singing his best.  Born Anthony Dominick Benedetto, he was trained in the Italian musical art of bel canto.  These songs, his commitment to excellence and beauty, are all part of his trademark.  Tony Bennett is a class act.

His resolve was rewarded and his career profoundly revived with his Grammy Award-winning recording MTV Unplugged was released in 1994.  Recorded live at the MTV studios in New York City, Tony’s uncompromising music and flair found a new and younger audience.  People young enough to be his grandchildren love his music.

You should check out Tony’s music.  MTV Unplugged is a fantastic place to start.  But beyond music appreciation, what will or won’t you compromise?  That’s part of the story of Tony Bennett.  It has commanded the respect of many for years.  Are you as committed to your core values and convictions when those things are at nadir in popularity?  Can you hold firm when the tide is against what you hold dear and believe in?

Take it from Tony—it’s worth standing for.

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Ambition, Talent, and Plain Hard Work

talent-is-overratedPeople tend to get quite uneasy at the mention of the word ambition in context of discussions about career, calling, vocation.  The classic stereotype is the self-centered man or woman who claw their way to the top of the corporate ladder stepping on anybody and everybody who happens to be perched on the rungs below–and in their way.  Ego, indifference to time-honored virtues, and bullying are all.

This is unfortunate.  Frankly, ambition has gotten a bad rap.  In fact, without it you will not hit any of your goals, whether personal and professional.

Last year, some friends and I discussed healthy ambition and its importance.. We focused on moving up in one’s career and becoming the best in one’s chosen field.  There is cost, effort, and sacrifice expended to make this happen.  There’s no such thing as a free lunch.  The pursuit of a highly valued station of influence and achievement takes patience, focus and a lot of hard work.  Those who take shortcuts are cheating themselves and are usually found out.

In his fascinating book Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers From Everybody Else, author Geoff Colvin–Senior Editor-At-Large of Fortune magazine shatters a number of myths about “natural” talent, genius and how pros become such.  These are usually echoed in statements like this: “Well, Tiger Woods was born to play golf.  He’s a natural.”

Here’s something you may not know. Tiger Woods and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart both had fathers who started them on the paths of golf and music from infancy.  Earl Woods had a putter in Tiger’s hands before he was a year old.  Leopold Mozart was an established musician and composer before his son was born.  He set Wolfgang on a very focused and intense vocation in musical performance and composition from childhood.  Neither Tiger Woods nor W. A. Mozart were geniuses in common parlance and legend.  They spent many years mastering their crafts.

Peak performers in any discipline acquire that position through untold hours of deliberate practice.  Not just practice, but focused periods of review and goal setting with specific objectives in mind.  When Tiger Woods goes to the driving range, he doesn’t simply pull out a driver and see how far he can hit the ball.  Instead he might take a five iron out and practice hitting the ball not more than sixty-five yards.  There is much more intense energy and concentration that attends deliberate practice.

Here are some steps that are crucial for you to rise to the top of your calling:

  • You must be a lifelong learner.  This means college, vocational school, online seminars, or training at the feet of a master whether a cabinet-maker or a jazz pianist.  It will cost time, discipline, sacrifice, and money.  Make the investment.
  • Saying yes also means saying no.  Getting to the top of the classical guitar world meant that a teenage Christopher Parkening was unable to play baseball with his pals as much as he’d like to have done.  His father, Duke, had him executing deliberate practice from the age of eleven.  Up at 5:00 AM to practice before school.  More practice when school was over.  Choosing mastery in an enterprise means you will not be able to say yes to lots of other pursuits simply because of the time and focus it takes to excel in your chosen field.
  • You must move past the drudgery curve.  A woman once told the great pianist Ignace Jan Paderewski, “You are a genius.”  His reply: “Madame, before I was a genius, I was a drudge.”  The driving range, the woodshop, the music room are not glamorous environments but it is in such places, over long hours, that one becomes a master.

When asked about his remarkable success as an inventor, Thomas Edison–who only had a third-grade education–remarked, “It’s plain hard work that does it.”


The world is looking for individuals who are outstanding at what they do.  Mediocrity, for such as these, grates against every instinct inside them.  You are called to such excellence. The sky is the limit.  Focus and move forward.

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Dan Fogelberg: “They Pulled Me Up to Their Level”

Dan FogelbergI’m a big fan of the late Dan Fogelberg.  When I was a much younger man, Dan had a string of hits, among them “Same Auld Lang Syne” and “Leader of the Band”—my personal favorite.  I loved his well-crafted lyrics, his multi-instrumental versatility and his quest for excellence when he hit the studio and the stage.

When Dan was an art student at the University of Illinois, he played coffee houses and bars at night.  While doing so, he was discovered by a local booking agent, Irving Azoff.  Azoff managed to get Dan a record deal and eventually sent him to Nashville to prepare to record his debut album Home Free.

During this time in Nashville, Dan was able to get a lot of work playing sessions as a studio musician.  Years later he reflected on his time as a young studio musician playing with older, established session guys, “I was only 21 years old and I was part of the band, these maniacs who were amazingly good players. These guys were much better than me, and they pulled me up to their level.”

Numerous times over the past seven years, I have played guitar in the pit band of local musical theatre productions for some great shows, among them “The Pajama Game” and “Damn Yankees”.  Last year, I was part of the production of the hilarious and macabre show, “Little Shop of Horrors.”

These kinds of gigs force me to grow as a musician.  Broadway musicals are often fast-paced, with many numbers in cut (2/4) time.  The music is always challenging and sophisticated so it gives one’s sight-reading quite a workout.  I remember playing through one Gershwin overture in particular, four minutes long, which contained over one hundred different chords (from the musical Crazy For You).  It’s not easy work and sometimes quite stressful.  But I grow.  My colleagues and the music itself pull me up to another level.

What kinds of environments do you regularly put yourself in that challenge you and help you grow?  Do you work with colleagues, both at your regular job and at your hobbies, who pull you up to a higher level?  And do you help to push others on to success, that they might discover veins of talent and creativity they didn’t know they have?

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