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Portland Leadership Institute

Nourish the Leader Within You

Leadership for the 21st Century


Millennials: When Will They Stop Picking on You?

Posted on 16 September, 2013 at 4:32 Comments comments (34)
It's always open season on the youngest generation.  Whether it's accusing members of a lack of a work ethic, being rude to their elders, or today's favorite word, entitlement, it seems like it is fair game to pick on today's youth.  It's getting annoying.

My earliest presentation on generation differences in the workplace was in 1984, when I joined Jay Shimada and Ken Jenkins in discussing "The New Lifestyle Worker."  I had come across the issue in 1975 as I was preparing to teach my first class at the University of Washington, and my major professor warned me that today's students did not have the same work ethic I had when I was their age.  I was 25; they were 22.

So the Huffington Post, which I generally enjoy, published "Why Generation Y Yuppies Are Unhappy."


Let's get the really picky stuff out of the way first.  The original article comes from an unsigned website, without an author's name.  Who wrote this?  How old are you?

(yes, on this site you can see who I am, and this article allows you to see my age)

And the names:  GenY is a name bestowed on the Millennials by the Boomers.  It implies that GenY is an addon to GenX (nothing could be further from the truth), and that the Baby Boom generation has the right to name this group.  Today's 1980s to 2000s have chosen Millennials; anyone who uses a different name is both disrespectful and disingenuous.

And Yuppies??!?  That's from Jerry Rubin and the Yippies.  Millennials are yuppies?  Where does this come from?

Now to content.  The Huffington article suggests that millennials are unhappy, stressed, delusional, frustrated, taunted, inadequate, and generally miserable.

So what does Huffington and waitbutwhy base their statements on?  We have two sources:
  1. Cal Newport, an Assistant Professor of Computer Science, decided in a one year old blog that '“Follow your passion” is an inspiring slogan, but its reign as the cornerstone of modern American career advice needs to end.'  He wrote a book.  What kind of credibility does he have?  A computer science prof??!?  And what's wrong with passion?
  2. Paul Harvey, an Associate Professor of Management, has done significant behavioral and managerial research, published in high quality journals.  Yet his focus is on management, supervision, and entitlement, not on generational issues.  I suspect that this "expert" found an unexpected result about age differences when looking at entitlement, and thought that he saw a true difference in generations.  None of his published articles has the word "generation" in the title.

Let's get to the crux of the issue.  Although there are significant differences in the generations, there are also significant age related differences, not related to a generation difference:
  1. The older generation typically questions the work ethic and "attitude" of the younger generation
  2. The younger generation believes that it can solve the organization's problems, if only the older generation would allow them to do so
  3. The older generation typically believes that the younger generation has an entitlement mentality
  4. The younger generation is convinced that the older generation resists change and stifles creativity
We can go on and on.  The point is that this is not a generational difference, but is a difference of age. 

Tell truth now:  When you were 25, did you not hear this being said of your generation?  Did you not often say this of your seniors?  If you said no to these questions, then you either are the exception, or your memory fails you.

And yes, the younger generation blames the older generation for the mess the world is in.  We (I was born in 1950) blamed the seniors for the Cold War.  We are now being blamed for the economy, among other things.  Youth blames age.

As I say, this is old news.  I recently read "The Swerve," Stephen Greenblatt's wonderful examination of the beginning of the Renaissance.  Greenblatt noted that young authors in 1400 believed Dante to have been not "truly worthwhile."  Talk about a generation difference.

So what do we do?  We need to first have a dialog based on true observation, not on the traditional ageist biases.  The millennials are doing exactly what they are supposed to do, exactly what we trained them to do.  Likewise, the boomers are doing what they are supposed to do.  We need to recognize this.

I am doing what I can.  I give a "Generations in the Workplace" talk about ten times/year.  It gets people talking.

Let's take a realistic look at the Millennials.  I see many of these students as hard working, raising a family, working 30 hours a week at their place of employment while taking a full load of classes, and becoming responsible leaders within their professional organizations.  I also see some barely putting forth effort as they scrape by and get a degree with as little work as possible.  In short, no stereotype describes their work ethic.

Can we make the same type of statements about Boomers?  Probably.

So let's stop the blame game.  Let's get out of everyone's way.  Let's talk to each other at work, find out what our different needs are (e.g., 45 year olds with two kids preparing for college have different needs than single 25 year olds attempting to prove themselves within their organization, yet wanting a long weekend to go skiing).  Let's see how we can help each other become more effective and productive.

And let's stop the critical articles based on specious reasoning and assumptions.

Alex Rodriguez and Arbitration

Posted on 19 August, 2013 at 2:35 Comments comments (231)
All right, let's get this straight, let's come clean.
  • I've been a Yankee fan all my life.  I live and breathe Yankees.
  • And Alex Rodriguez (ARod) is a cheat.  But at least he's my cheat.  In the same way that Barry Bonds belonged to Giants fans, Mark McGwyre to his fans, Roger Clemens and Ryan Braun to others, etc. 

Today we get to talk two topics:  arbitration and due process.  A sense of ethics and morality does not matter.  All that matters is one person's reading of the contract.

(to all sports announcers:  it is an arbitrator, NOT an arbiter, who will decide this.  An arbiter can settle disputes, but legally it is an arbitrator who will settle this one.  Hearing the word "arbiter" used gives an indication of the quality of the information being discussed.  Most announcers do not get this right.)

Most of you know the story.  Alex Rodriguez has been accused of using performance enhancing drugs (PEDs).  The current collective bargaining agreement (CBA) for Major League Baseball (MLB) prohibits this through a Joint Drug Prevention Agreement (  The CBA/JDA states the penalty:  a 50 game suspension for a first time offender, with the right to appeal.  As in many CBAs, the employee is permitted to work (play baseball in this case) while the appeal is being heard.  That's due process.

ARod is a pariah; he is alleged to have purchased PEDs from Biogenesis, to have recruited other players to use Biogenesis, to have lied to MLB investigators, to have attempted to purchase and hide evidence as part of a coverup, to have snitched on teammates, and to have committed other similar atrocities.  People are upset over the size of his contract; they are clamoring for his expulsion from baseball.  While most other offenders in the Biogenesis case have been given and accepted 50 game suspensions, ARod was suspended for 211 games.  He has understandably appealed.

Let's explain arbitration.  The arbitrator is jointly selected by the two parties, based on their knowledge of the arbitrator's past record.  Arbitrators make decisions based on three factors:  the facts of the case, the relevant contract provisions, and the law.  Nothing else.  Common sense does not matter.  Letters to the editor are irrelevant.  A sense of fairness is not a factor.  The facts, the contract, and the law.  Period.

The CBA and the JDA are specific:  a first time offender receives a 50 game suspension.  If multiple offenses occur simultaneously, the largest possible penalty takes precedence; simultaneous offenses are not cumulative. 

Other than the use of PEDs, none of the list of alleged offenses is identified in the CBA.  No matter how anyone feels about these, they can not factor into the arbitrator's decision.  In the eyes of the arbitrator, they do not exist.

And a positive 2003 test:  this predated the current CBA.  It is excluded.  From the arbitrator's perspective, it did not happen.

You don't have to like this, but the arbitrator has only one option.  Follow the contract provisions and reduce the suspension to 50 games.  This is an open and shut case. 

If you were an employee and your manager punished you more severely than permitted, you would want similar protections and due process. 

What Does it take to get Fired Around Here?

Posted on 10 April, 2013 at 23:06 Comments comments (4)
What does it take to get fired around here.  I learned this question from a great friend, a great consultant, Bob Doyle.  I used it again today with a group of CEOs.  The look on their faces was illuminating.

Must someone be guilty of sexual harassment?  What about embezzlement?  Do you have to slug someone?  How about spitting in the pizza you are about to serve customers?  Poor performance?

What does it take to get fired around here?  What does someone need to do in your company to get fired.

Don't tell me about union contracts.  Don't tell me about public sector protections.  The reality is, after nearly 40 years of teaching, consulting, and listening to CEOs, whenever I ask that question (again, thanks, Bob, for the best question a leadership consultant could ever ask), I see ashen looks on the faces of some of the best leaders we could ever find.  Public, private, union, non union.  No difference.

Because they know that they tolerate poor (terrible!) performance.

What does it take to get fired around here?

The leadership and management practices of the sports and entertainment worlds have always been illuminating for us.  Whether you like them or not, they open a window into human behavior.

The last few weeks have given us great examples.  At Rutgers University, the State University of New Jersey, a coach physically, verbally, emotionally abused his student-athletes.  He was suspended; the attorneys said state rules prevented his termination.  Only when the video went viral was he fired.

But here's the kicker:  when the truth came out, and the coach and Athletic Director were terminated (don't say resigned--that is merely a legal fiction), the President remained.  Isn't the legal defensibility of (to paraphrase) "I had no need to see the video" something that may work in court but does not serve the citizens of New Jersey or the reputation of the university?  Didn't the President have a responsibility to ask questions and protect his students?

What does it take to get fired around here?

The head of officiating of the Pacific 12 conference (UO, OSU, etc.) clearly told referees to call technicals and/or eject the Arizona coach in the conference tournament.  Does this violate the integrity of the game?  Is this a bias you want officials, who are assigned to work games ($5000/game) by this very head to hear?

No, this was not enough to terminate the head of officiating.  "He was only joking."  Not enough to fire until the media and social networking heard of this and complained.  Then he got fired.

What does it take to get fired around here?

Learning from the sports world, it's really simple:  do you fire people for poor performance?  If not, then you are as guilty as the Board of Governors of Rutgers.  Do you fire your top salesperson "merely" because she is guilty of sexual harassment?  If not, you are as guilty as the Pac-12.  Do you get rid of your best performer, who just happens to also berate his subordinates and create immense turnover among your newest and best workers?

If you said no to these questions, and offered the usual excuses, you are in the majority.  And you create problems for yourself and every good performer in your organization.

What does it take to get fired around here?  This is a question you must ask yourself again and again.  If you are uncomfortable reading this, it's time for a change. 

When you do not let your poor performers go, when you turn a deaf ear to your discipline tell your best people to start looking for work elsewhere.  They'll go to your competitors.  And your worst people:  the message is that you will tolerate anything.  They will then test you.  Again and again and again.

What does it take to get fired around here?  If you call yourself leader, this is the most important question you can ask.


Posted on 20 February, 2013 at 18:00 Comments comments (22)
There is an urge within us, both idiotic and ingenious,
that keeps us locked in place.

Idiotic, because it keeps us stuck and will not look
beyond its comfortable mud hole and move on.

Ingenious, because to defend its muddy fortress
it will summon a myriad of excuses: 
society, luck, incompetent teachers, lazy co-workers,
accidents, unfit parents, low self-esteem, bad management, etc.,
to avoid making significant change.

......Every excuse but the real one:
Its instinctive obstinacy
to remain in the mud hole it knows so well.
---paraphrased from the Lubavitcher Rebbe

The concern is an old one: 

I'm stuck and don't know how to get out

We first read about being stuck in college, when "everyone" was reading Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.  Although at times dense, it is one of the most brilliant treatises about what happens to us when we can no longer move.  It is a book about quality, quality in one's own life.  And the search for answers nearly drove Pirsig insane.

I once spent a day meditating by the side of the White River on Mt. Rainier, watching hikers stop at this log bridge.  Some simply could not get started.  One group, on a long hike and with full backpacks, retreated.  Going around would add a day to their trip.  They were stuck.

At the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam the brochure tells us it was Van Gogh's brother who suggested that the 27 year old Vincent become a painter. 

"At the time Vincent....had succumbed to a paralyzing sense of futility.  No one could have foreseen that from such seemingly hopeless beginnings the black sheep of the Van Gogh family would develop within a decade into an artist whose name would be known throughout the world."

What happens to us; what are we to do?  Our most recent blog was on focus.  Focus is a way out.  It is a key to beginning to move.

Therese Amabile has done significant organizational research on how movement commences.  After focusing her own work on creativity for many years, she turned to the question of Are You Making Progress?  Not surprisingly, her new book, The Progress Principle, finds relatively simple solutions.  

The question, of course, becomes one of what we do to get going.  Are you tired of the prescriptions to take baby steps, that a journey of a thousand miles begins with but one step, and all the other cliches?  We have heard these all our lives because, in fact, they actually work!  Amabile takes these to a different level, giving  research specific results.

In the years when I did significant running I always had my running journal.  Every mile was logged, who I was with, how I felt, where I went.  I kept score; I could measure today against last year, knowing that today's run would also serve as a milepost for the future.  There were times that the logbook was the only thing pushing me out the door for that day's run.  And I got out the door.

Amabile suggests that we do the same in other aspects of our life.  Develop the focus of the hedgehog (there's Collins again), look at purpose and quality (Pirsig), and use signs to keep track of our progress, to ensure that our successes continue.  The wonderful folks at Apple give us the perfect tool:

When you've made progress, pull out a green card and give it to yourself.
If you're not sure, you get a yellow one.
And when you're stuck.........

When you choose to be leader, you choose to step up, to move out of your comfort zone, to help others achieve what they need.  You have chosen to push yourself. 

It is part of the human condition to be stuck.  The great leaders go beyond this, they focus like hedgehogs, they move others to achieve their goals. You choose to be a leader, or choose to leave yourself behind.

Lincoln, LBJ, MLK, and Your Personal Focus

Posted on 17 February, 2013 at 16:51 Comments comments (9)
We saw Lincoln a few weeks ago.  Aside from some minor historical inaccuracies, it was an incredible story of vision, perseverance, and focus.

For those who knew of Honest Abe only from childhood stories or history classes, Lincoln might have been a shock.  While the movie exhibited his passion for the common person, we also saw a hard driving politician, willing to use some of the same hardball tactics, including buying votes, we abhor in our politicians today.  Those who have studied Lincoln closely, perhaps reading a biography (I am partial to Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals:  The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln) found little surprise here. 

You may recall a prior essay we wrote about LBJ and MLK, based on a play we saw at the Oregon Shakespearean Festival in Ashland.  Although reinforcing perceptions about LBJ, it showed MLK in a new light, casting him as a single minded leader, bent on sacrificing whatever it took in order to achieve his goals.

Lincoln achieved the 13th Amendment.  MLK and LBJ the Civil Rights Act.

Focus.  What does that really mean?

Jim Collins (Built to Last; Good to Great; Great by Choice) has used his career to tell American leaders about focus.  Much of my recent international teachings have built on Collins' work.

Collins takes a simple Greek quote from Archilochus, "the fox knows many things; the hedghog one big thing," and ties it to the concept that the cunning fox cannot catch the simple hedgehog because of the one big thing.  The stodgy hedghog puts its protective spikes out and the fox cannot successfully attack.  The hedgehog survives, and the fox goes hungry..

Focus.  The Hedgehog.  Lincoln, LBJ, MLK.  What does this mean for you?

For a leader we have translated Collins' works into three questions: 

What does this mean for any leader, Lincoln, King, Johnson, or you?  Lincoln is the perfect example:

  • He was born to free the slaves.  Regardless of whether this was his intent (historians debate the issue) no one before him had this passion.
  • Skills?  No doubt exists here.
  • Demand.  1861-1865 was the time.  Both the decreasing financial dependence on slavery and the ethical changes in the north demanded that this was the time.  It couldn't wait. 

So now it's up to you.  What are you supposed to do within your organization, within your life?  Leaders throughout history, perhaps beginning with Hillel 2100 years ago, have asked two simple questions:  "If not us, who?  If not now, when?"

What are you to do, when should you do it?

What is your Big Hairy Audacious Goal?  How will you find the focus to begin this work.  

Both life and leadership become simple when you find your sweet spot..

Ronald Reagan and Roger Goodell

Posted on 25 September, 2012 at 11:45 Comments comments (0)
Ronald Reagan had a strategy.  He merely awaited an opportunity.

When Reagan was elected President in 1980, he had been upset with the state of unionism in the US for years.  Although a former leader of the Screen Actors Guild, he would never have been classified as a union sympathizer.

In the summer of 1981 the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) engaged in an illegal strike.  To the shock of most, Reagan invoked the law and fired the strikers.

President Reagan's strategy was to change the climate of labor management relations in this country.  His goal was to send a message to large and small organizations that the power of unions was no longer to be unfettered, was no longer to be unilateral.  He succeeded.  The labor climate changed forever; the change was as significant as that created by the passage of the National Labor Relations Act during the Great Depression.

No one is sure what NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell's strategy is with the NFL officials.  Some say he wants to break the union; others describe less clear objectives, such as eliminating pensions, saving money, telling part timers that they are not more important than the league, etc.  The point is that nothing is clear.  

It is said that after the PATCO strikers were fired it was not safe to fly for years.  Professionals who understood the situation took long distance trains rather than flying.  One tragic midair collision would have negated Reagan's strategy; he may have been forced to rehire the strikers to again make the air corridors safe.  That collision would have forever changed the course of American labor relations.  That collision never occurred.

Roger Goodell had his midair collision.  When the Seattle-Green Bay game's result was impacted by a decision of replacement officials, the tipping point of public opinion and NFL players/coaches was reached.  As we write this, we do not know the result.

We do know that there is no clear strategic direction.  Effective labor management relations requires a clear strategy, a clear understanding of who has the power, who has the support.  We await a coherent strategy.

LBJ, MLK, Henry V: What is there for us today?

Posted on 23 September, 2012 at 14:37 Comments comments (298)
This was an extraordinary year in Ashland, at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. 2012 combined Chekhov, Marx (Groucho, not Karl), ancient Japanese mythology, and the Black Panthers. The Very Merry Wives of Windsor brought Falstaff to Iowa as a defeated and broke presidential candidate, suffering the pangs of defeat in the caucuses. And one utterly bizarre and incredible play was titled Medea/Macbeth/Cinderella. You figure it out.

But the biggest leadership lessons came from "All the Way" with LBJ (you remember the 1964 Presidential campaign slogan, don't you?) and Henry V, starring the unforgettable John Tufts, playing Prince Hal/Henry for the third consecutive year in the trilogy.

Putting it simply, "All the Way" was about The USE OF POWER by someone who has groomed himself his entire life for just this moment.

LBJ was pure power manipulation, pure force and ingratiation, combined with a knowledge of how to get to everyone. Beginning in November 1963 LBJ had to show that he could become trusted on Civil Rights, when everyone was unsure whether he meant what he said. He worked with MLK and against J. Edgar Hoover, both of whom had surprisingly similar leadership styles. All three formed coalitions and occasionally, in today's language, threw a trusted ally under the bus.

Henry V: The USE OF POWER by someone who has been groomed all his life for just this moment. Henry V had to show that he too could become a leader. He had to prove himself. He had to throw his old friends, chiefly Falstaff, the court jester, under the bus in order to prove his own worthiness.

50 years later we remember only the good of MLK, and much of the negative of LBJ. Each reached his peak in 1964, each fell in 1968.

500 years later we see Henry V and Richard III in similar veins, Henry good, Richard evil. Both kill without mercy, create havoc, then woo the innocent girl.

Tufts thinks the distinction is Honor vs. Power. Henry kills out of a sense of honor, to do better for England. Richard kills only for power. Richard tells us that he will do bad, and he revels in having us see him be evil. We want to watch Henry develop,but we have a subtle satisfaction in watching Richard snarl as his evil was ignored.

Yet the true characters have little that is different between then. It is Shakespeare's propaganda that makes the difference. Richard was not as bad, Henry not as good as Shakespeare made them. Was old Will the first media spin doctor, exemplifying honor in one, power in the other, when they were actually relatively similar?

And what does this mean for leaders today?

As Henry began a process of self discovery as a youth, so did LBJ upon winning his first congressional election before the age of 30. Henry IV usurped the crown when Prince Hal was 14, turning Hal's life upside down.  He had to face his new reality as the future Henry V. This happened to LBJ, Nov. 22, 1963. Preparing, not quite ready.

So often this is how it is for many great leaders. Leadership is thrust upon them.

And yes, there is a cost of leadership.   Expectations are placed on them, but they pay prices to achieve those goals.  There is compromise, loss of colleagues, loss of minor goals.

On Nov. 21, 1963, LBJ could go to his ranch and pull his dog's ears with no one caring.  It all changed the next day.  He, as Henry V and MLK and everyone else before and after them, worked on creating his own legend.

When we have opportunity to see a leader from afar, we are permitted to view the personal journey.  In order to see the full picture and learn from their successes and tragedies, we need to see what they have paid, where they have lost.  We recognize that often there is little difference between them and us.