When Humor Isn’t So Funny

By Mike Myatt, Chief Strategy Officer, N2growth

The old saying “everybody loves a comedian” has regretfully given birth to a time where everybody thinks they’re a comedian. Sadly, what many have failed to realize is the old saying noted above was meant to be sarcastic…We all love good humor, but the truth is all humor is not good. The timely and appropriate use of humor is an asset to any leader. Likewise, distasteful or inappropriately timed humor can be a significant liability.  As a leader it’s quite easy to get a laugh – your title will virtually guarantee it. Therefore it’s important for leaders to become skilled at distinguishing the difference between a compliant chuckle and a sincere chortle. Good humor can bring people closer, but poor humor can be one of the strongest repellents known to man.  

Did you hear the one about the pastor, priest and rabbi who went skydiving? Just kidding…The very nature of humor is it’s misunderstood more often than not. This makes humor a proverbial two edged sword – it can slice through the toughest of situations to your advantage, or cut sharply against you. When levity is used to appropriately ease a burden or relieve tension it is greatly appreciated. However when your rapier wit is used as a weapon of humiliation or intimidation you are confusing humor with arrogance. I believe it was Winston Churchill who said: “Humor is a very serious thing.” Just because you find something funny, doesn’t make it so. Put simply, to use humor to mock, belittle, undermine, or attack isn’t good humor, and it’s certainly not good leadership. Remember – many a slient tear has been hidden behind a public smile.

One trait that consistently ranks highly among the most admired leaders is they’re confident enough to poke fun at themselves. When leaders understand the difference between false humility (self-serving) and authentic self-deprecating humor (benefiting others) things quickly transition from awkward to funny. Smart leaders have long recognized the best punchline – themsleves. Use the levity surrounding your experiences, mistakes, failures, challenges, etc., to turn teachable moments into unforgettable lessons.

Just because you could, doesn’t mean you should. The mental picture of a whoppie cushion in a board meeting might be funny, but it wouldn’t be appreciated. A general rule of thumb would be if something would get a laugh at a fraternity party, it’s likely not appropriate in the workplace. Jack Benny said: “Gags die, humor doesn’t.” Workplace humor is a tricky thing to be sure, and I’m hopeful the following thoughts will help keep you from falling down the slippery slope and having your jokes land with a thud: 

  • Don’t confuse being a leader with being a comedian. Leadership is job number one.
  • An attempt at bad humor is not an acceptable excuse for unacceptable behavior. Racist, sexist, ageist, and other forms of discriminating acts won’t be tolerated because you attempted to cloak them in bad humor.
  • Use humor to lift people up, not to put them down. Don’t laugh at people – laugh with them.
  • Don’t force it – if you’re trying too hard to be funny your humor will fall on deaf ears.
  • Use your humor to make people feel more comfortable rather than more awkward.
  • Gags and practical jokes should only be used when those on the receiving end find them funny.
  • Don’t use humor to single someone out, use it to help them acclimate.
  • Sarcasm is not a license to belittle someone. Saying “I was just joking” doesn’t cut it.   

Please leave your comments below, and if you have an appropriate joke to share, please do that as well. The best joke will win an autographed copy of my book…

Leadership & Toxic Work Environments

By Mike Myatt, Chief Strategy Officer, N2growth

I have read a tremendous amount of information over the last several months on the topic of toxic work environments. While these articles tended to stir the pot a bit, they were in my opinion mostly missing the mark. The articles should have been written on the topic of poor leadership. Toxic work environments can only exist where a lack of trust and respect are present, and this can only occur in the absence of sound leadership. Let me be as clear as I can – the phrase “toxic work environment” is code for bad leadership, becasue a toxic culture simply cannot co-exist in the presence of great leadership. In the text that follows you’ll find the truth about toxic cultures…

A toxic work environment thrives off of everything that great leadership stands in opposition to. The fuel for toxicity is conflict not resolution, ego not humility, self-interest not service above self, gossip & innuendo not truth, social & corporate climbing not team-building, and the list could go on. Toxic cultures occur where arrogance, ignorance, ambivalence, and apathy are present, but again, not where sound leadership stands at the helm.

It’s also important to understand that a toxic culture cannot exist if toxic people are not allowed to take up residence.  This is why a value based approach to recruiting is a key component when teaming-out the organization, and is especially important as you build a senior leadership group. Those team members who share the same core values will be predisposed to trusting one another at high levels. Those team members who share a commonality of core values will automatically assume “best intentions” in one another vs. assuming “worst intentions” or “motives/agendas.”

From my perspective there is no such thing as a toxic asset – toxic liabilities yes, but assets, no. Here’s the thing – leaders who allow toxic personalities to invade their culture put the health of their entire organization at risk. Toxic personalities will put a damper on morale, attempt to intimidate and/or manipulate co-workers for personal gain, and can even chase away a company’s best talent. Bottom line – toxic individuals kill productivity, and if allowed to run unchecked can have a much broader and deeper impact on an organization than one might think.

A bad attitude isn’t something good leaders take lightly. Smart leaders see themselves as protector of culture, defender of those under their charge, champion of brand, and steward of trust. Great leaders simply won’t tolerate a toxic team member – the risks are too great. Real leaders will quickly coach toxic team members to a healthy place, or show them the door – there is no third option.

So, what do you do if you’re not in leadership and find yourself in a toxic work environment? My experience shows you have four choices: First, don’t get sucked down into the toxicity – it’s bad for your health. Secondly, assess whether or not there’s anything you can realistically contribute to making an impactful change, and do it. Thirdly, If you cannot, or will not help to create positive changes then get out as quickly as you can. A fourth option is of course to do nothing. If you choose this option you have the certainty of remaning employed in the near term, but at what cost? The good news is in most cases poor leadership will eventually cause it’s own demise. I’ve often said that leadership not accountable to its people, will eventually be held accountable by its people.       

As always, I welcome your comments below.

Leadership Interview – James Hotaling

By Mike Myatt, Chief Strategy Officer, N2growth

There are simply no words that can do justice to the example of servant leadership epitomized by Command Chief Master Sergeant James Hotaling. A highly decorated member of the special operations community earning the Bronze Star with Valor for actions during Operation Anaconda in Afghanistan, Jim is a true American hero.  I have interviewed countless leaders over the years, and never has so much leadership wisdom been espoused so poignantly, eloquently, and with such authentic humility as what you’re about to read below. Jim’s answers to my questions are nothing short of a leadership manifesto. Please take the time to leave a comment below and thank Jim for his service. On with the interview…    

Mike Myatt: What is your first recollection of really knowing that you were called to be a leader?

James Hotaling: From my earliest memories I always felt I had a “calling” to serve. At the age of 13, I joined the Civil Air Patrol. The teachings of this auxiliary of the USAF, was invaluable to me and truly the building block to what I have become today. I was exposed to military discipline, traditions and core values as a teenager and along with solid family values shaped my servant leadership style.

Mike Myatt: Has your leadership style changed over the years, and if so, how?

James Hotaling: Call it maturity, but I would be lying if I said I haven’t learned from my mistakes and frustrations. I have learned to slow my rush to judgment and always understand there are other viewpoints. My biggest change is learning to truly embrace diversity of thought.

Mike Myatt: What was the single biggest “ah-ha” moment you’ve had as a leader?

James Hotaling: It was actually very recent. This February I attended a resiliency conference conducted by the DoD. The premise of the conference was presenting the answers to some of the problems we have been experiencing in the military with suicides and PTSD. The military has come up with eight key areas to concentrate on when supervising for a “Total Force Fitness” approach. These keys to resiliency has changed my leadership style and really was an “ah-ha” moment for me. You see, in order to be effective during good times and bad are to embrace and develop a resilient force. I try to “weave” the eight key points into conversation everyday with my people. In the introduction to the study, the publication states, “We are in an age of sustained conflict. Wars and threats to our security are no longer episodic, but require continuous optimal performance, resilience and recovery. Injury from these conflicts may be physical and mental, social and spiritual. It impacts the service member, their family and community and the nation. If we are to protect the freedom and security of our nation, we must move beyond simply having a sound body to a holistic view of health and fitness that includes both mind and body.”

The eight areas are; Physical, Environmental, Medical, Spiritual, Nutritional, Psychological, Behavioral and Social. We as leaders must work hard to create an atmosphere where everyone has a holistic approach to well-being.

Mike Myatt: Who had the most significant influence on shaping you as a leader?

James Hotaling: I have been blessed with great mentors. My first was a retired Air Force Colonel in his 60’s who gave his time to teach young teenagers who volunteered to be in Civil Air Patrol. He taught me about the power of giving back. I had a supervisor in my active duty days who always understood the importance of providing broadening experience to his people. True story: I was on a downhill slide of being over confident (and young), cocky, arrogant and downright turning into a bad apple. One night he took me out behind our work section and proceeded to beat the crap out of me! After I was the recipient of a good right hook and fell to the ground, he jumped on top of me and was about to hit me again when he stopped and I could see he was actually tearing up. He was so upset at me for failing him and my teammates. He wanted me to know that I had all the opportunity in the world to succeed and I was not taking advantage of it. That one event changed me forever. Never again would I let my attitude get bigger than the opportunities that other people were working hard to provide me. His emotional caring showed me what it was to be a servant leader. My last great mentor was my team leader. He showed love. Love for his country, mission and his team. A grown man many years older than me showed me how to love others.

Mike Myatt: What does the military offer young leaders in the making?

James Hotaling: Our core values sums up what you get in a young military leader. Integrity first, Service before Self and Excellence in all we do. With this simple foundation along with tried and true military discipline, how can you go wrong with future leaders!

Mike Myatt: How do you feel military leadership skills translate into civilian life?

James Hotaling: See the above answer. What corporation would not want to invest in someone who comes to them with these skill sets and leader DNA already built in? Today we have a new term for it and it is being a “warrior-diplomat”. The amount of exposure to various leadership scenarios throughout the world gives a military member a very unique perspective. Whether it’s negotiating with a tribal leader, working with the State Department, leading people in challenging and rapidly changing environments, etc; these experiences allows someone to think critically and lead successfully which would translate to a well prepared leader no matter who you work for.

Mike Myatt: What has been the most difficult decision you’ve had to make as a leader?

James Hotaling: Placing mission accomplishment over friendship. I once stood up an organization from scratch. This was a two year process and cost me many friends and tarnished a bit of my reputation. But in order to accomplish this stand-up and do it right, I had to make many hard choices that were very unpopular at the time. This taught me that it is truly lonely at the top, but as a leader you must always have the integrity to do the right thing no matter the personal cost.

Mike Myatt: What’s been most rewarding to you as a leader?

James Hotaling: Leading men into combat. To lead men who have volunteered to serve their country is unlike anything else I have experienced. To share in a tradition of Service before Self and willingness to make the ultimate sacrifice for their country is humbling. Since the days of the Spartan Warrior, men have stepped forward to defend their homeland. To serve amongst special operators has taught me many things in leadership.

Mike Myatt: What do you see as the primary role of a leader?

James Hotaling: A good leader should always focus on taking care of his own (through leadership, management, communication and mentorship), should always know how to analyze the strategic context of the operational environment and always as a leader be able to manage change.

Mike Myatt: What do you see as the single biggest stumbling block for leaders?

James Hotaling: Over management and under leadership

Mike Myatt: What do you see as your greatest strength as a leader?

James Hotaling: Passion. I bring intensity and focus to the job every second of every day. My love of country and passion for the mission keeps me motivated to perform at the highest levels for my people. It is extremely important to never settle, but rather always seek to continuously develop yourself to be better.

Mike Myatt: What do you see as your greatest weakness as a leader?

James Hotaling: I never try to think in terms of weakness. I think of terms of where I need to improve. The area I think I need to constantly work on is having the patience to listen to contradicting opinions. I truly value diversity of thought and work hard at making sure a majority of meetings have diverse players in them. My issue is always learning to sit back and really listening to a counter argument without first trying to jump in and defend myself.

Mike Myatt: Is it more difficult to be a leader today, why or why not?

James Hotaling: I recently transferred into a new organization. After the first 30 days of walking around and talking to people, evaluating their processes and seeing performance levels; I realized there was one vital ingredient missing that would propel them to the next level, and that was good old fashion leadership. I would not say it’s more difficult to lead today, I would say you need to have courage to be a leader. Not a manager, not a process improver, but a leader. It really doesn’t matter if it was 3000 years ago or in present time, people need leadership.

Mike Myatt: What’s the best and worst example of leadership you’ve observed in recent times?

James Hotaling: Best- I have witnessed a senior leader work hard at “looking into the future” and really set the condition to deliberately develop his force. He has tirelessly placed people in key schools and assignments to develop them. He cares more about the future of his organization then worrying about himself.

Worst-I witnessed a leader of an organization care more about himself (image, reputation, amount of friends he had) than he cared about his people and organization. When a person is in it for themselves, he is truly a hollow leader.

Mike Myatt: What should leaders today be focused on with regard to the future?

James Hotaling: Force Development. You must be developing the people below you to succeed. You must do this much earlier than you think. You can’t wait for someone that is only a year or two out from being a key leader to start developing that person. Work hard to provide as much development and broadening experience to as many subordinates as possible. This will create a pool of experience and the true leaders will begin to evolve and rise to the top. You must invest in future leaders now in order to grow in the future. With limited resources we have to rely on leaders to think and motivate their people to achieve success.

Mike Myatt: If you could give our readers one piece of advice on leadership, what would that be?

James Hotaling: A true leader should never be in his position for personal gain. It should always be about accomplishing the mission. That is why you are there. You are to LEAD the organization to better performance. It is a privilege to have the capacity to execute that responsibility every day. A good leader always looks at himself in the mirror first before looking at anyone else for excuses. Responsibility to SERVE in a leadership role has responsibility and reward, be respectful of both.

Mike Myatt: How important is “legacy,” and how do you hope to be remembered?

James Hotaling: Personal legacy is something a servant leader should never think about. It is all about the organization. I would like to be remembered as someone who gave back to his country since the age of thirteen. I am an American Airman and I have answered my nations call. It’s that simple, I look for no accolades only the ability for myself to say thank you to my country for giving me and my family all that we have.

Leadership Interview – Warren Bennis

By Mike Myatt, Chief Strategy Officer, N2growth

Widely regarded as the father of the contemporary field of Leadership, Warren Bennis paved the way for those of us who make our living as leadership advisors. Warren would never say this, so I will; he has forgotten more about leadership than most of us will ever know. Put simply, spending an hour with Warren Bennis is like drinking leadership wisdom from a fire hose. At age 19, Warren was the youngest combat infantry officer in the European Theater during World War II, and was awarded both the Purple Heart and Bronze Star. After the war, Warren went on to author 30 books, served as an advisor to four different U.S. Presidents, spent time on the faculties of MIT, Harvard, Boston University, INSEAD, the University of Exter (UK), and at age 86 Warren is University Professor and Distinguished Professor of Business Administration and Founding Chairman of The Leadership Institute at the University of Southern California. My favorite piece of Bennis trivia is that Warren actually knew Albert Einstein. Watch the video, enjoy your time with a living leadership legend, and then please leave a comment and let Warren know what his work has meant to you…

Leadership and Independence Day

By Mike Myatt, Chief Strategy Officer, N2growth

The Heart of A WarriorIndependence Day is one of my favorite holidays. It celebrates the birth of a great nation founded by men and women who understood the meaning and value of disruptive thinking, service, honor, leadership, and above all, freedom. As we approach this 4th of July weekend I can’t help but think of our founding fathers and the sacrifices they made when they fought to establish our nation’s independence. Those thoughts of respect and admiration in turn led me to think about of our troops overseas currently fighting to protect our way of life and preserve our freedom. The more I began to ponder the heroism of our military (past and present), the more I began to consider the traits possessed by our nation’s warriors. I believe the same characteristics that are present in the heart of a warrior are also present in the most successful executives and entrepreneurs.

Here’s the thing – you really can’t separate leadership from independence. Leadership void of independent thought and action isn’t leadership – it’s a train wreck. Those leaders who fail to grasp the importance of the preceding sentance may practice some form of demagoguery, but it will fall woefully short of the historic example set by our founding fathers and the prodigious efforts of our nation’s present day warriors.

Regardless of whether or not they have served in the military, today’s business leaders would be well served to possess the characteristics of a warrior in their pursuit to achieve sustainable growth and long-term success. Commitment, attention to detail, discipline, service above self, honor, integrity, perseverance, the ability to both lead and follow, to execute with precision, and the ability to adapt, improvise, and overcome are all traits that will serve you well in the boardroom.

There are many so-called management gurus in today’s politically correct world who would take great exception to what I’m putting forth in today’s post. They would tell you that the classic strong leadership traits that define our nation’s best military leaders are outdated, and that they don’t display a proper amount of empathy and compassion. I’m here to tell you that strength and compassion are not mutually exclusive terms…rather the strongest leaders are in fact the most compassionate leaders. A leader’s greatest responsibility is not for his/her own glory, but it is for the well being of those whose care has been entrusted to said leader. Many of those currently holding positions of leadership would do well to rid themselves of their feckless ways and take note of how real leaders conduct their affairs.

The leadership characteristics that have served our nation well throughout history will allow you to inspire and lead others with a focus and commitment not present in DNA of those leaders who don’t have the heart, mind, and soul of a warrior. It is the ability to stay mentally focused on achieving the mission at hand, regardless of circumstances, that will help you take your organization to that next level. While not all great business leaders have served in the military, those of you who possess the heart of a warrior understand the advantages you derive from your military bearing and state of mind. I’ve rarely come across students of military history that don’t have a great command of both strategic thinking and tactical implementation.

I strongly recommend to all business leaders that they learn to develop a command presence, and lead from a committed, empathetic, and passionate position of strength. The word “passion” comes from a Latin root which means quite literally to suffer. If you’re passionate about something it means you care so much that it hurts – that you’re willing to suffer greatly for something you hold dear…Refusing to surrender, and having the ability to make the tough decision or the needed sacrifice, will allow your organization to continue taking ground and will keep the competitive advantage on the side of your enterprise.

As always, I welcome your comments below…