MLK on greatness…

Everybody can be great. Because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve… You only need a heart full of grace.
Martin Luther King Jr.

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This Year Try Passing the Buck

Author’s note: This article first appeared December 10, 1998 in Holiday Memories, a special publication of the Beaverton Valley Times, Tigard Times, Tualatin Times, Lake Oswego Review, & West Linn Tidings.

I couldn’t remember exactly how it started, so I called my Mom. She wasn’t really sure either but thinks she read about it in a magazine. Whatever the source, our holidays have been better ever since.

For the past decade or so, instead of exchanging gifts, my mother, brother, sister, and I have sent contributions to each other’s favorite charities. My wife and brother-in-law join in as well. Last year I got my father involved too.

It is a simple but powerful idea. Certainly it feels good to direct money to my favorite non-profit organizations. However, I have discovered other motivations as well. Like most people, I know of more worthy causes than I’m able to support financially. By directing our holiday gifts to charities we each expand our capacity to give. I also appreciate the balance and perspective this offers during a season that can sometimes feel overwhelming.

There are advantages for the gift givers as well. To begin with, they no longer have to wonder what to get you each year. Instead of scrambling around town to get your gift wrapped and delivered on time, they write a note, sign a check, and lick a stamp. Rather than worrying if it fits or if you like the color, they have the satisfaction of knowing they gave you a meaningful gift. As an added bonus, their gift on your behalf is more than likely tax deductible for them.

Of course the ultimate beneficiaries are those served by the organizations you choose. By foregoing that CD you could feed a family of four for a day. Passing up that sweater would allow you to pay the heating bill for someone who would otherwise be cold. Instead of a new VCR, imagine funding books for a dozen adult literacy students. These are only my examples; think of how the organizations you believe in have an impact in the community.

There are many ways to implement a charitable gift exchange. Here are a few suggestions based on our experience:

It has to work for both parties. Evaluate each potential participant’s level of interest as well as your specific relationship. For example, within my immediate family — which includes my wife and our two young sons — we choose to give each other traditional gifts.

Treat it like a real gift. Send a card to the person on your gift list to let them know you sent the contribution. (I create a special certificate that I enclose as well.)

Make it clear to the charity what’s going on. I send a brief letter with my checks explaining the origin of the donation and asking the organization to address future requests for funding to the person who requested the contribution.

Provide gift givers with a list of two or three organizations. Most of us support more than one charity; offering choices makes it more enjoyable for those who give and may even increase their gift.

It’s hard for me to imagine the holidays without exchanging contributions to our favorite charities. I would miss the broader sense of celebration it brings to the season. I invite you to try it yourself this year. Your holidays may never be the same.

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Literacy Goes Beyond K-12

Author’s note: An edited version of this article was published as a guest commentary by The Oregonian and, January 10, 2000. It is republished today in honor of the United Nation’s International Literacy Day.

“Let us think of education as the means of developing our greatest abilities, because in each of us there is a private hope and dream which, fulfilled, can be translated into benefit for everyone and greater strength for our nation.”
– John F. Kennedy

As my two young sons head back to school this fall I look forward to sharing a new year of learning. I have every reason to believe that one day they will graduate with the reading, writing, and math skills they need to realize their potential. Yet, I am equally certain that this will not be true for thousands of their peers across the nation and here in Oregon.

In recent years there has been a renewed emphasis on ensuring children are successful in school. There is widespread recognition of the need to read to young children each day. People mobilize to volunteer in classrooms and organize book drives. I, too, believe in addressing literacy problems early and have supported these efforts over the years both as a volunteer and donor.

Yet, in spite of this impressive response, an alarming number of young people will become functionally illiterate adults. In Oregon, an estimated 500,000 adults are at the lowest of five levels of literacy. This means that they have difficulty completing a job application, interpreting a bus schedule, or deciphering the instructions that come with their child’s medicine.

The reasons for adult illiteracy are varied and complex. Some never finished school for personal reasons, many have learning disabilities, and others are struggling with a new language. The common denominator, however, is lost potential.

Fortunately, there are resources to help. The seventeen community colleges in Oregon offer instruction in Adult Basic Education (ABE), English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESL/ESOL), and high school equivalency diplomas (GED). Over 40,000 adults take advantage of these services each year. Less well known are the dozens of community-based literacy organizations across the state. Hundreds of volunteers provide free tutoring on an individual basis or in support of classroom learning.

Oregon has worked to leverage resources through collaboration. Tutors are trained and certified through TELT (Training Effective Literacy Tutors), a unique partnership between public and private non-profit literacy providers. Another example is the Literacy Line, a toll-free referral service and information clearinghouse for adult learners as well as volunteers. The Literacy Line is managed by Oregon Literacy, Inc. and funded by the Office of Community College Services. Oregon Public Broadcasting and the Oregonian promote the Literacy Line through public service announcements. The Oregonian also publishes News 101, a regular feature for new readers.

Improved literacy skills mean more options, greater self-sufficiency, and improved self-esteem. Unfortunately, there are more people who need help than can be served today. Although the size and scope of the problem are daunting, I remain hopeful. I am inspired by the courage of those committed to pursuing the learning they need. I admire the dedicated volunteers and professionals who offer their time and talents. Together they are changing lives and we all share in their achievements.

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On fathers and sons…

By the time a man realizes that maybe his father was right, he usually has a son who thinks he’s wrong.
Charles Wadsworth

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In honor of April 1…

Nature never makes any blunders; when she makes a fool she means it.
Josh Billings [Henry Wheeler Shaw]

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A review of two leadership fables by Patrick Lencioni

Art Imitates Life

Management books are peppered with anecdotes in an often vain attempt to demonstrate relevance to real life. Patrick Lencioni, management consultant and part-time screenwriter, takes this approach to its logical extreme in his series of “leadership fables.”

Lencioni’s premise is that leadership is not complicated, just difficult given our human frailties. He conveys his concepts in an easily digestible format featuring chapters that are short enough to read during the commercial breaks of your favorite TV program. In fact, if leadership was as easy as these books are to read there would have been no need to publish them.

Both The Five Temptations of a CEO and The Five Dysfunctions of a Team offer useful insights for leaders. At the same time, the author tends to be glib in his assumptions, prescriptions, and rationale. The result is works that are at once profound and superficial.

Temptation at the Top

Andrew O’Brien is failing as the CEO of Trinity Systems. Riding the train home he meets an elderly gentleman, Charlie, who wants to talk. The Five Temptations of a CEO is not so much a story as an extended dialogue. For the next 60 pages Charlie engages Andrew in an impromptu tutorial on the essence of leadership.

Charlie, with the aid of a few fellow travelers, slowly reveals that the secret to success at the top comes down to resisting five temptations:

1. Choosing status over results.
2. Choosing popularity over accountability.
3. Choosing certainty over clarity.
4. Choosing harmony over productive conflict.
5. Choosing invulnerability over trust.

Initially skeptical, Andrew becomes a believer. This sets the stage for a dramatic scene in the board room and an ending with a twist.

After the conclusion of the story Lencioni provides more about the model including his theory that there is a “sequential impact of the principles on one another.” It progresses in reverse order beginning with trust, and achieving each principle enables the realization of the next. The author also offers a self-assessment section for those curious about the dark side of their leadership.

I find it hard to argue with the temptations. Certainly every organization would benefit from a leader dedicated to results, accountability, clarity, productive conflict, and trust. The real world scenario and specific advice enhance the messages and enable Lencioni to effectively translate abstract concepts of leadership into ideas that can make a difference. At a minimum this book is valuable to the extent that it encourages leaders to reflect upon their assumptions, beliefs, style, and role.

In spite of these strengths The Five Temptations of a CEO left me vaguely unsatisfied, as if I had eaten an appetizer and was still hungry for the meal. Unfortunately, the author offers nowhere to go for more. The book sheds no light on what thinkers may have influenced his model nor does it offer a bibliography, references or suggestions for further reading. While I appreciate his organizational development and executive coaching experience, Lencioni presents no other basis for his theories.

Furthermore, while I respect the logic of the model, the author glosses over meaningful questions, complexity, and nuance. For example, I wondered about non-linear linkages between the Temptations, e.g., it seems possible that leaders favor certainty (#3) because it helps them preserve an image of invulnerability (#5). Similarly, I imagine there is a connection between the desire for popularity (#2) and its usefulness as a tool to promote harmony (#4).

More broadly, I resist the author’s sweeping assumption that humans are imperfect and therefore leaders and teams are inherently dysfunctional. While there is some truth to this claim, it seems more convenient than useful for developing a model of leadership. For example, a more proactive point of view might suggest instead that the real challenge is in organizing the workplace and teams to better align with human nature.

Lastly, while I agree that the CEO is ultimately responsible for the success of an organization, leadership by definition requires others. Perhaps that’s why he wrote a sequel.


The Five Dysfunctions of a Team is derived directly from The Five Temptations of a CEO. As Lencioni explains in the introduction it grew out of his observation that clients were applying his theories to improving leadership teams.

This fable follows Kathryn Petersen, CEO of Decision Tech, from her difficult start through her first year or so. Throughout the story the former seventh grade teacher delivers what amounts to a running lecture punctuated by demonstrations of class management. Along the way she reminds her “students” that they may flunk (be fired) or withdraw (quit) at any time.

Like Charlie before her, Kathryn describes five key factors that undermine success. With the exception of one, each maps to a Temptation described above, however, in this case the consequence is a dysfunctional team.

1. Inattention to results.
2. Avoidance of accountability.
3. Lack of commitment.
4. Fear of conflict.
5. Absence of trust.

The story of Kathryn’s struggle is more interesting than Andrew’s travels with Charlie perhaps because it features more and better developed characters. While the ending is never really in doubt, Lencioni nevertheless makes a convincing case that creating effective teams is central to leadership. Through Kathryn’s story he illustrates what it might be like to actually pursue this goal using his model.

After the story Lencioni again presents more details of his model along with an assessment tool. Like its predecessor the five elements of this model are linked in a serial progression, now represented in the form of a pyramid with trust at the base. However, this time he offers a more complete exploration of his ideas. The section entitled Understanding and Overcoming the Five Dysfunctions is a welcome addition along with the related notes on The Role of the Leader. I especially appreciate his insights that a lack of energetic debate is a sign of an unhealthy team and that conflict often makes leaders uncomfortable because they feel their job is to maintain “control” of the group.

The Five Dysfunctions of a Team
is a natural extension of Lencioni’s first book. It retains the strengths of The Five Temptations of a CEO while improving both the quality of the story and the subsequent explanation of the model. Not surprisingly, however, it also shares many of the same limitations, most a result of the trade-offs required to achieve simplicity. For example, Lencioni defines productive conflict as heated debates without the personal attacks. I believe productive conflict is far more complex and nuanced  than implied by this definition and certainly demands more of leadership than playing referee at meetings. Perhaps as the model continues to develop Lencioni and his clients will elaborate on this as well as other aspect that call for more depth.

The Five Questions

In the midst of so many dull management books, I find the innovative format of these “leadership fables” refreshing. Together they outline a useful framework for examining leadership even if parts of the structure are thin.

In the spirit of Charlie and Kathryn I close with The Five Questions:

1. Are these books earth-shattering? No.
2. Are they worth reading? Yes.
3. Do I have to read them both? No.
4. Can I really use the concepts? Yes.
5. Will there be a movie? Maybe.

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On changing one’s mind…

Faced with the choice between changing one’s mind and proving that there is no need to do so, almost everyone gets busy on the proof.
John Kenneth Galbraith

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