True Heroes

It’s easy to forget what Memorial Day actually means while you’re sitting by the pool and looking ahead at summer vacation—but the day signifies much more than just a three-day weekend. Memorial Day is a solemn day for remembering those who have died serving in the American armed forces. It’s not only easy to forget what Memorial Day is about but also to underestimate the massive collective loss to families, loved ones, and communities as a result of the millions of American soldiers who gave their lives fighting for our country.

One of the most beautifully written pieces about one girl’s awakening to the meaning of Memorial Day is written by Nancy Sullivan Geng who wrote the following article for Guideposts magazine. I hope it inspires you and your family to take a moment today to honor those who paid the ultimate sacrifice so that we could enjoy our freedom and all that our beautiful country affords us every day.

The Meaning of Memorial Day

I leaned against an oak at the side of the road, wishing I were invisible, keeping my distance from my parents on their lawn chairs and my younger siblings scampering about. I hoped none of my friends saw me there. God forbid they caught me waving one of the small American flags Mom bought at Ben Franklin for a dime. At 16, I was too old and definitely too cool for our small town’s Memorial Day parade. I ought to be at the lake, I brooded. But, no, the all-day festivities were mandatory in my family.

A high school band marched by, the girl in sequins missing her baton as it tumbled from the sky. Firemen blasted sirens in their polished red trucks. The uniforms on the troop of World War II veterans looked too snug on more than one member.

“Here comes Mema,” my father shouted. Five black convertibles lumbered down the boulevard. The mayor was in the first, handing out programs. I didn’t need to look at one. I knew my uncle Bud’s name was printed on it, as it had been every year since he was killed in Italy. Our family’s war hero. And I knew that perched on the backseat of one of the cars, waving and smiling, was Mema, my grandmother. She had a corsage on her lapel and a sign in gold embossed letters on the car door: “Gold Star Mother.”

I hid behind the tree, so I wouldn’t have to meet her gaze. It wasn’t because I didn’t love her or appreciate her. She’d taught me how to sew, to call a strike in baseball. She made great cinnamon rolls, which we always ate after the parade. What embarrassed me was all the attention she got for a son who had died 20 years earlier. With four other children and a dozen grandchildren, why linger over this one long-ago loss?

I peeked out from behind the oak just in time to see Mema wave and blow my family a kiss as the motorcade moved on. The purple ribbon on her hat fluttered in the breeze.

The rest of our Memorial Day ritual was equally scripted. No use trying to get out of it. I followed my family back to Mema’s house, where there was the usual baseball game in the backyard and the same old reminiscing about Uncle Bud in the kitchen. Helping myself to a cinnamon roll, I retreated to the living room and plopped down on an armchair. There I found myself staring at the Army photo of Bud on the bookcase. The uncle I’d never known. I must have looked at him a thousand times—so proud in his crested cap and knotted tie. His uniform was decorated with military emblems that I could never decode.

Funny, he was starting to look younger to me as I got older. Who were you, Uncle Bud? I nearly asked aloud. I picked up the photo and turned it over. Yellowing tape held a prayer card that read: “Lloyd ‘Bud’ Heitzman, 1925-1944. A Great Hero.” Nineteen years old when he died, not much older than I was. But a great hero? How could you be a hero at 19?

The floorboards creaked behind me. I turned to see Mema coming in from the kitchen, wiping her hands on her apron. I almost hid the photo because I didn’t want to listen to the same stories I’d heard year after year: “Your uncle Bud had this little rat-terrier named Jiggs. Good old Jiggs. How he loved that mutt! He wouldn’t go anywhere without Jiggs. He used to put him in the rumble seat of his Chevy coupe and drive all over town.

“Remember how hard Bud worked after we lost the farm? At haying season, he worked all day, sunrise to sunset, baling for other farmers. Then he brought me all his wages. He’d say, ‘Mama, someday I’m going to buy you a brand-new farm. I promise.’ There wasn’t a better boy in the world!”

Sometimes I wondered about that boy dying alone in a muddy ditch in a foreign country he’d only read about. I thought of the scared kid who jumped out of a foxhole in front of an advancing enemy, only to be downed by a sniper. I couldn’t reconcile the image of the boy and his dog with that of the stalwart soldier.

Mema stood beside me for a while, looking at the photo. From outside came the sharp snap of an American flag flapping in the breeze and the voices of my cousins cheering my brother at bat.

“Mema,” I asked, “what’s a hero?” Without a word she turned and walked down the hall to the back bedroom. I followed.

She opened a bureau drawer and took out a small metal box, then sank down onto the bed. “These are Bud’s things,” she said. “They sent them to us after he died.” She opened the lid and handed me a telegram dated October 13, 1944. “The Secretary of State regrets to inform you that your son, Lloyd Heitzman, was killed in Italy.”

Your son! I imagined Mema reading that sentence for the first time. I didn’t know what I would have done if I’d gotten a telegram like that.
“Here’s Bud’s wallet,” she continued. Even after all those years, it was caked with dried mud. Inside was Bud’s driver’s license with the date of his sixteenth birthday. I compared it with the driver’s license I had just received.

A photo of Bud holding a little spotted dog fell out of the wallet. Jiggs. Bud looked so pleased with his mutt. There were other photos in the wallet: a laughing Bud standing arm in arm with two buddies, photos of my mom and aunt and uncle, another of Mema waving. This was the home Uncle Bud took with him, I thought.

I could see him in a foxhole, taking out these snapshots to remind himself of how much he was loved and missed.

“Who’s this?” I asked, pointing to a shot of a pretty dark-haired girl.

“Marie. Bud dated her in high school. He wanted to marry her when he came home.” A girlfriend? Marriage? How heartbreaking to have a life, plans and hopes for the future, so brutally snuffed out.

Sitting on the bed, Mema and I sifted through the treasures in the box: a gold watch that had never been wound again. A sympathy letter from President Roosevelt, and one from Bud’s commander. A medal shaped like a heart, trimmed with a purple ribbon. And at the very bottom, the deed to Mema’s house.

“Why’s this here?” I asked.

“Because Bud bought this house for me.” She explained how after his death, the U.S. government gave her 10 thousand dollars, and with it she built the house she was still living in.

“He kept his promise all right,” Mema said in a quiet voice I’d never heard before.

For a long while the two of us sat there on the bed. Then we put the wallet, the medal, the letters, the watch, the photos and the deed back into the metal box. I finally understood why it was so important for Mema—and me—to remember Uncle Bud on this day.

If he’d lived longer he might have built that house for Mema or married his high-school girlfriend. There might have been children and grandchildren to remember him by. As it was, there was only that box, the name in the program and the reminiscing around the kitchen table.

“I guess he was a hero because he gave everything for what he believed,” I said carefully.

“Yes, child,” Mema replied, wiping a tear with the back of her hand. “Don’t ever forget that.”

I haven’t. Even today with Mema gone, my husband and I take our lawn chairs to the tree-shaded boulevard on Memorial Day and give our three daughters small American flags that I buy for a quarter at Ben Franklin. I want them to remember that life isn’t just about getting what you want. Sometimes it involves giving up the things you love for what you love even more. That many men and women did the same for their country—that’s what I think when I see the parade pass by now.

And if I close my eyes and imagine, I can still see Mema in her regal purple hat, honoring her son, a true American hero.

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Power Talking

There is an oft-quoted statistic published by a USC professor, Albert Mehrabian, which states that we communicate 55% of a message with our body language, 38% with our tone, pace, and pauses and only 8% with our actual word choice. As a student of communication, I find convincing evidence of this almost every day, but I believe it’s only relevant if there is a disconnect between our truth and our words. If there is an incongruency, the body language will trump the words every time. If there is total congruency between our body language, tone, and words… there is no issue of believability for the listener. But, there can still be big issues with understanding and impact.

Assuming that we’re speaking our truth and that our body language and tone lines up, the words we choose can make a big difference in the level of comprehension and influence that we actually have.

Here are some tips for choosing the right words and increasing your impact with those with whom you are trying to communicate and influence:

1) Learn and use their name.
You don’t have to overdo this. Two or three times in a business conversation will work wonders.

2) Emphasize what works.
We have a tendency to tell people what won’t work or what can’t be done versus what will work or what can happen. Always try to rephrase your words to highlight the positive versus the negative.

3) Partner with people.
a.  How can I help?
b.  What do you think?
c.  How would you approach this?
d.  What’s been your experience?

4) Speak to the good.
Appreciate and acknowledge people. It feels good and most people don’t hear it enough. It opens people up and makes them feel good about themselves and you.

5) More “You” – less “I”
“Here’s what we deliver” is different than “Here’s what you get.” The words “you” and “your” are your best friends when trying to influence.

6) Stay in control.
“I’ll find out and follow up on that” is better than “I don’t know.”

7) Stack your vocabulary with power words. Here’s Inc. Magazine’s list of the most powerful business words:

a.  Verbs
i.   Discover
ii.   Enjoy
iii.  Reduce
iv.  Save
v.  Act
vi.  Empower
vii.  Enrich
viii.  Believe
ix.  Partner
b. Nouns
i.  Guarantee
ii.  Results
iii.  Time
iv.  Power
v.  Commitment
vi.  Solution
c. Adjectives
i.  Affordable
ii.  Best
iii.  Convenient
iv.  Easy
v.  Free
vi.  More
vii.  New
viii.  Safe
ix.  Proven
d. Others (prepositions, adverbs)
i.  Because
ii.  Never (never worry again; never overpay again)

8) Connect with “and” versus “but”
“But” is usually the big eraser of what came before it in a sentence. Inserting “and” is almost always a better choice in the middle of a sentence.

Mark Twain once said, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is really a large matter… ‘tis the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” This week, step into your full ability to persuade, connect, influence, and create lasting impact by paying attention to your choice of words.

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The Joy of Work

Reader mail and subscriber responses are one of my favorite parts of writing a weekly inspirational blog. A few weeks ago, I wrote about the value of connecting with clients, patients, and customers on more than just a digital format such as email, texts, or social media. ( I contended that while we use all those modalities to communicate, sometimes you simply can’t replace picking up the phone or connecting intentionally with someone in person.

Soon after, I received the following email from one of our subscribers, Alicia Morris:

“You are so right about the personal touch with patients. 90% of the patients love it and want it. Service with a smile (it’s not about you!) Compassion and caring will win a friend (aka) a faithful, loyal patient every time. I applied those principles for over 23 years and it works, it works, it works!

The perks in doing this was loving my job and looking forward to going to work every morning. I made friends that, even today after moving away and leaving that office, still send me Christmas cards and thank you notes… and I retired over 10 years ago! It was a career I loved. I still grieve over the inability to comfortably stand on my feet 8-10 hours a day to continue doing it. And last, but by no means least, I had a happy doctor with a full appointment book and patients that showed up on time!

Thanks for listening to my ramblings but your post brought so many wonderful memories I just had to encourage you “to keep on keeping on” teaching your principles of a successful practice especially from the front desk perspective. I did attend your classes in Atlanta at the Hinman one year and quickly became a fan.”

It was a great reinforcement for sure, but what struck me most about this note was her unmistakable joy about her work. She contends that “loving her job and looking forward to going to work every morning” are perks of the compassion and caring she showed to her patients. But, I might argue a different cause and effect relationship. Could it be that demonstrating that level of compassion and caring actually produces the quality of relationships and satisfying results that help to increase the amount of joy we feel in our work?

There is no question that the amount of significance we feel we have and the impact we make has a direct affect on our level of satisfaction at work. If we don’t feel we’re making a difference or having a positive and important impact but rather just going through the motions of doing a job to get a paycheck… we can’t help but miss out on an elevated level of joy and gladness with our work.

This week check in with yourself and make sure that you are building a professional life and body of work that will leave you feeling like Alicia when you look back on it all years later. Do what it takes to be really present, build deeper relationships, and serve at a higher level so that your significance and impact increases, thus driving your joy and love for your work to the stars!

“I feel the capacity to care is the thing which gives life its deepest significance.”
~Pablo Casals

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Music Monday: Imperfect Choices

Nothing in life is perfect. Not our children. Not our jobs. Not even our “perfect moments.” At 50 years old, I found myself single and searching for something more in life. Something perfect. And, 8 years ago, I met him. 5 years ago, I became engaged to him. And, 3 years ago on May 24th, I married him. But, it’s not been perfect. We’ve made mistakes and we’ve learned. We’ve experienced joys and triumphs as well as defeats and solid disagreements.

Looking back over photos of our wedding day, I remember that even my most perfect day was not perfect. The caterer forgot my beautiful handmade cake stand. The live butterflies that were supposed to be fully awake and poetically fluttering out of the box carried by Tom’s granddaughter down the aisle ahead of me… were somehow still sleepy and decidedly not cooperative. Much of the carefully selected music I had chosen for every moment was never played because (I found out later) our MC couldn’t make the playlists work on my laptop and so he improvised and played what he could from memory. My hairdo didn’t last the night, and we weren’t allowed to use our firework sparklers because of the fire restriction at the resort.

As I gazed at the memories of that beautiful day, I contemplated the people we were then as well as who we have become together and as individuals through this experience and the choice we made. I know we have much yet to learn, but some important and useful lessons have already made us better.

I’ve learned that when we choose anything in life… a job, a home, or a partner… we choose it with all its parts. Good and bad, easy and hard. Embedded in every choice is an opportunity to get to know yourself better in relation to that choice. I realize now that every choice I’ve made on my journey so far has brought me immeasurable gifts, even if I didn’t experience them quite like that at the time. I’ve discovered that I don’t make any important choices- work, friendships, love-just once. We continue to make that choice over time. Every day, in fact. We choose again and again. Or not.

I’ve realized that we can’t possibly know what twists and turns are coming or what new information or knowledge will reveal itself, but if we did know in advance, we’d avoid the hardships and consequently lose the learning that comes with it. So, choosing and growing is better than not choosing and just playing it safe.

Thankfully, our love has deepened and been well-earned. My choice to marry Tom three years ago has brought more fun than pain, more joy than despair, more discovery than stagnation, and more laughter than tears… though all of it has been there. So far, my choice has been a pretty good bargain indeed. And so today, on this Music Monday (always the first Monday of every month), I selected our wedding song sung by Sara Bareilles, I Choose You. My favorite lyrics say what I knew then and what I know now…

“We are not perfect, we’ll learn from our mistakes
And as long as it takes, I will prove my love to you.
I am not scared of the elements, I am underprepared,
But I am willing, and even better,
I get to be the other half of you.”

This week, my encouragement for all of you is to be brave and make those choices that have the potential to move your life forward. Choose wisely but choose. Trust yourself to keep making the choices you’ll need to make in the future but don’t stay on the shore for fear of the storms that may or may not come. As John Burroughs said, “Leap, and the net will appear.”

Choose YOU.

“Let the bough break, let it come down crashing
Let the sun fade out to a dark sky
I can’t say I’d even notice it was absent
cause I could live by the light in your eyes
I’ll unfold before you
what I’ve strung together
The very first words of a lifelong love letter
Tell the world that we finally got it all right
I choose you
I will become yours and you will become mine
I choose you

There was a time when I would have believed them
If they told me that you could not come true
Just love’s illusion
But then you found me
And everything changed
And I believe in something again
My whole heart
Will be yours forever
This is a beautiful start
To a lifelong love letter
Tell the world that we finally got it all right
I choose you
I will become yours and you will become mine
I choose you

We are not perfect we’ll learn from our mistakes
And as long as it takes, I will prove my love to you
I am not scared of the elements, I am underprepared,
But I am willing, and even better
I get to be the other half of you

Tell the world that we finally got it all right
I choose you,
I will become yours and you will become mine
I choose you
I choose you
I choose you”

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Love to. . .Can’t

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the dangers of taking your eye off the ball, losing sight of your priorities and saying “yes” when it would be in everyone’s best interest to say “no.” But it’s easy to write about that idea and agree with it in theory. It’s a whole lot harder sometimes to actually do it because “no” is such a harsh statement for many of us and seems to frame us as unwilling to help.

I was reminded recently by a colleague, Kirk Behrendt, about a kinder, easier way. His video on the “3 Words to Simplify Your Life” is an adorable gem to which we can all relate. Instead of “No,” Kirk recommends saying “I’d love to, but I can’t…” He contends that remembering these three little words (Love to, can’t) will allow you to honor the request while respecting your own boundaries. This short phrase softens the hard line between “yes” and “no” and reframes our response as a lot less harsh and unwilling. Kirk believes that the real question is whether granting the request will actually serve others or will be done at the expense of ourselves, our families, or our current clients. If it’s the latter, then we actually don’t adequately serve anyone… the person making the request nor those to whom we’ve already committed.

I like pleasing everyone. I like being the “good guy.” I love being a hero.

I dislike letting my family down. I dislike clients that feel short-changed. I hate making mistakes from sheer exhaustion.

The remedy lies in remembering the value and power of saying, “No” and thanks to Kirk… I can feel a little better now when saying it. I hope you can too.

Here’s to a balanced, productive week ahead!

“My goal now is to remember every place I’ve been,
only do things I love,
and not say yes when I don’t mean it.” 
~~Sandra Bullock

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Three Questions

My friend and colleague, Eva Grazel, recently sent me an article about three questions that a couple asked their children every night before they put them to bed. It occurred to me that these questions were not just great for developing children but would be amazing for developing leaders and strengthening adult relationships as well. So, Tom and I have embarked on the nightly ritual over our dinner to answer the same questions for a while. Here’s what it’s taught us already:

1. How were you brave today?
Courage sometimes takes the form of a big, dramatic event like sky-diving and bungee-jumping. But, more often for most of us, courage shows up in small little decisions we make every day. Stepping onto the stage for the first time. Throwing your hat into the ring for a speaker’s competition. Asking for a raise. Deciding to speak up. Deciding to remain quiet. Staring down your excuses. Picking up the phone and making the call. Taking a long, hard look at yourself in the mirror.

Answering this question daily about ordinary moments of valor and bravery creates a foundation of little audacious moments where we stepped up and conquered… however small… so that when the big moments are upon us, we have some strong muscle memory to pull that trigger. It helps our courage become an old and familiar friend.

2. How were you kind today?
We’re all human. But, are we also developing our humanity? In a world where people can be downright mean and say and do the cruelest things to one another, it’s easy to lose sight of our own ability to be humane. Acts of kindness can be small, easy things and they always make us feel so good. But, they can also be hard things: Standing up for someone, including the outsider, or just making something right. Kindness is a strength and another muscle worth exercising regularly.

3. How did you fail today?
If you want to lead anything or anyone or if you just want to be and stay successful, you cannot be afraid of failure. Making decisions is essential to moving forward and leading yourself or a team, and sometimes we get it wrong which is infinitely better than playing it safe and never making decisions at all. At LionSpeak, we don’t want people to fear getting a low score on a mystery shopper call report. I don’t want my husband or my children hiding things from me because they fear my reproach for the mistakes which they are bound to make if they live a life that is moving forward. First-time mistakes mean we’re trying and learning, and there’s something so beautiful to me in that, isn’t there? Cheer for your first-time failures every day!

When we share these questions and answers with others in our sphere of influence, we also learn from the sharing. We discover new ways to be brave and kind and fail with grace and glory. This week, consider adding these three powerful questions to your daily routine with family and colleagues or maybe to your agenda for your monthly team meeting. We get more of what we focus on so focus on being brave, practicing kindness, and learning well from your mistakes.

“The only proper way to eliminate bad habits is to replace them with good ones.”
~~Jerome Hines

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Throwback Thursdays was one of the most fun trends that happened on Facebook a few years back. To participate, you had to spend a few minutes looking back over old photos. I loved that it created a moment in our busy week to reflect on our past: big hair, skinny legs, silly antics, old friends, childhood memories, growing children, and precious moments in time.

There’s a lot I love about this photo: The sweaty blonde hair, grass-stained knees and skinned elbows, little pigeon-toed feet, baseball cap dramatically thrown off to make the catch, and the pained look on his sweet young face that makes this mother’s heart melt. I’m also reminded every single time I look at this picture of how fear can make us momentarily flinch, back away, and take our eyes off the ball.

It happened just this week to me. As a solo-entrepreneur, I enjoy the ability to set my own schedule and make my own choices. Included in this however is also the reality that no one will be giving me a paycheck simply because I came to work that day. I must give myself my own paycheck every month… or not. Sometimes the fear of not having enough at the end of the month causes me to override my commitments of life/work balance and my overarching life vision of health, peace, balance, fun, and love.

Case in point: The week before Tom and I left with his grandson on a two-week, work-related holiday to the UK, I received a couple of requests for coaching. One was for a team retreat facilitation in Tennessee and the other was a day of private speaker’s coaching at the Ranch. Both were full-fee gigs and magnificent work, 100% in alignment with my business goals.

Because I’ve traveled abroad before and dealt with the 8-hour time difference and jet lag from the 10-hour flight, I knew full well that having a couple of days to recuperate and recalibrate my internal clocks would serve me well. But, here were two clients, checkbook in hand, requesting dates which were immediately on the heels of our return to the States. Out of fear that there might not be “enough”, I reluctantly said yes. The result was utter exhaustion and an eventual breakdown of my schedule, which ultimately resulted in me not being able to see my coaching client who had flown in from Northern California, due to delayed and cancelled flights on my way home from the retreat in Tennessee.

I made the same fatal mistake as Austin. I let fear and doubt cause me to flinch, back away, and take my eyes off my priorities, commitments, and true goals… and the result was to be further in the hole instead of ahead of or fully in the game. Lesson relearned.

This week, as you make your decisions, both professionally and personally, make sure that you are not allowing fear or any other negative emotion to make you flinch from your commitments or back away from your priorities. Don’t take your eyes off your true goals for one minute or you’ll miss the catch, if not be completely out of the game.

Keep your eye on the ball, stay focused on what matters, and make the catch.

“The hardest thing to find in life is balance – especially the more success you have,
the more you look to the other side of the gate. What do I need to stay grounded,
in touch, in love, healthy, connected, emotionally balanced?
Looking within yourself will provide the answer.”

~~Celine Dion

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Music Monday: Coming Home

If everything is energy and just living life is an ongoing energy exchange, even a country pulses with a unique energy all its own. Each of us likely interprets that energy differently but for me the English and Irish countryside dotted with its little, ancient villages, filled to the brim with its friendly, charming people and of course it’s lilting accents and music feels like sipping warm tea by a fire with an old friend. My parents tell me I’m of German descent, but I must have some English heritage in there somewhere. I just know I must.

We’ve had a fabulous visit to these two countries and are now charting our course back home. I have the sense this week of an expanded definition of “home” for me. On the one hand, exposure to new ideas and expanded understandings of history, art, literature, and traditions has me feeling that we are all bound together in more ways than we might ordinarily think and with that expansion comes a broader view of what “home” for me might include. It somehow seems possible to be “at home” almost anywhere in the world with this feeling of interconnectedness.

Conversely, I’ve also experienced a knowing that there is more than I could ever see, experience, or understand in this enormous world of ours and where I was once feeling unsettled about that notion, knowing I would never be able to do or see it all in what’s left of my life… I’m now starting to believe that travel has helped me to appreciate the sweetness and simple perfection of my life back home.

The same could be said for our work. From office to office, business to business, and speaker to speaker, there is a broader connectedness than you might imagine. When we are cocooned in our small professional spaces, it’s easy to assume that others have it figured out or don’t have the same troubles, challenges, or experiences as we do but it’s simply not true. As I travel around North America and the world, the leadership, communication, team culture, and client service challenges are hugely similar, if not identical.

And yet, our situations are also unique in their small and individual ways. With a broad exposure to thousands of professionals, you realize that wherever you go… there you are… and that our current professional “home” is perfect in what it has to teach us and provide for us at this moment.

I somehow missed that last week was the first Monday of the month which is traditionally our “Music Monday.” Thankfully, I get to make up the rules so this month, it falls to the second Monday. I’m sharing a song written from an old Irish blessing and sung by the Celtic Thunder which Tom and I had the pleasure of seeing in person last year. It seems a fitting song to leave our friends across the pond and to welcome us back home. It also seems a fitting song for my wish for you this week as you face your professional and personal challenges, hopefully with a renewed sense that you are definitely not alone and perfectly “at home” wherever you are in this moment of your journey.

Here’s to a great week ahead!

Celtic Thunder Inspirational
– May the Road Rise To Meet You

“May the road rise to meet you
May the wind be at your back
May the sun shine warm upon your face

May the rain fall softly on your fields
And until we meet again
May you keep safe
In the gentle loving arms of God

For everything there is a season
A time for meeting
A time to say goodye
In all things
God is near
Always guiding your way

May the road rise to meet you
May the wind be at your back
May the sun shine warm upon your face

May the rain fall softly on your fields
And until we meet again
May you keep safe
In the gentle loving arms of God

For everything there is a season
A time for loving
A time for letting go
In all things
God is near
Always guiding your way

May the road rise to meet you
May the wind be at your back
May the sun shine warm upon your face
May the rain fall softly on your fields
And until we meet again
May you keep safe
In the gentle loving arms of God”


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The Knowledge

If you are a fan of right angles and straight lines, driving in London is not for you. The baffling knot of streets, roundabouts with up to eight entry points instead of stop signs, and the fact that you are driving on what we consider the wrong side of the car AND the wrong side of the street turns most Americans into whimpering idiots within a day, if not an hour. In London, it’s completely possible to take two right turns and end up in the exact same spot. Or in Narnia. Or Bonkersville. Even with a good map, most people get lost. And yet, there are thousands of Londoners who’ve committed the city’s entire layout to memory… the drivers of London’s famous Black Cabs.

This week as my work takes me to England and Ireland, the first thing Tom and I did upon arriving at London’s Paddington Station was hail one of these cabs to take us to our hotel which was located in the financial district about 25 miles away. As we slid into the immaculate and spacious rear section with all our luggage, the friendly cab driver asked, “Where to?”

“Malmaison Hotel, please. Just a moment, I have the address right here…” As I frantically began to dig around inside my cramped travel bag, he raised his hand and replied, “No worries, Miss. I know exactly where ‘tis.” And, with a reassuring smile in the rearview mirror… we were off.

It was late afternoon and we hit a traffic jam almost immediately. Our cabbie quickly and expertly made a sharp turn and detoured down a different avenue, explaining along the way how the city was laid out as well as adding fascinating tidbits of information about all the sights we were passing. Impressed with his substantial knowledge and skill, I asked if he had lived in London all of his life and if he was a history buff. That is when I learned about “The Knowledge.”

The Knowledge is a test among the hardest to pass in the world and has been described as having an atlas of the streets of London implanted in your brain.

While learning to drive one of London’s Black Cabs is no easy feat, the pay which averages $150,000 per year and the freedom make it very appealing to 25,000 licensed drivers. Cab fares in London are the second most expensive in the world (after Tokyo). To earn the privilege, drivers have to pass an intense intellectual ordeal, known charmingly as The Knowledge. Since 1865, they’ve had to memorize the location of every street within six miles of Charing Cross… all 25,000 of the capital’s arteries, veins and capillaries. They also need to know the locations of 20,000 landmarks – museums, police stations, theatres, clubs, and more – and 320 routes that connect it all together.

It takes an average of four years to learn The Knowledge though some have done it in as few as two and as many as thirteen. To prove their skills, prospective drivers make “appearances” at the licensing office where they must recite the best route between any two points in a one-on-one oral exam. The only map they can use is the one in their head. They even have to narrate the details of their journey, complete with passed landmarks, road names, junctions, turns, restaurants, ATM’s, and maybe even traffic lights. Only after successfully doing this, several times over, can they earn a cab driver’s license.

There are no short cuts to becoming a Black Cab driver. Students, known as “Knowledge boys” (or girls), spend years driving through London learning thousands of streets and the quickest “runs” or routes from one point to another. Most of them work a full-time job, spending nights and weekends on the back of a scooter with a map of an area attached to a clipboard and mounted on the handlebars, covering thousands of miles in the process.

If they sit for one of the many exams they must take and do not pass, they simply try again. Our cabbie described it this way, “Perseverance is the key: Nobody can fail The Knowledge. They can only give up.”

So why don’t they just use a GPS (or SatNav as the Brits call them)? The answer to this question brings me to the point of this week’s Stretch: Just because technology CAN do something for us… doesn’t mean it always should.

Turns out that many experienced London Cabbies have entered regular competitions where they battle against GPS technology and the clock. They are asked routine questions, common in the life of most cab drivers, such as, “Can you take me to my hotel but on the way could you stop at a cash machine and an all-night pharmacy?” When pitted against another person operating the GPS, the cabbie equipped with The Knowledge almost always wins.

I observe similar issues in my work with healthcare and service-based businesses all the time. For example, I’m a huge fan of automated appointment confirmation systems for most clients but occasionally the administrators, armed with The Knowledge of years of experience, know that the shortest route to actually getting certain clients through the door on time and on the right day for their appointments is not only to pick up the phone personally but also to do it in a particularly personalized way for that patient… something the digital technology just can’t do.

Luckily for us, we don’t have to log thousands of miles on the back of a scooter in rain, cold, and snow for four years to learn The Knowledge. We simply have to recognize that ultimate client service is achieved by a common-sense approach to merging both technology and human interaction… high tech combined with high touch. When you merge this with experience and common sense, your team will create an unbeatable client experience that no digital “GPS” could ever navigate!

“Truth is emotional, it’s fluid, and above all, it’s human. No matter how quick we get with computers, no matter how much information we have, you’ll never be able to remove the human from the truth-seeking exercise.” — Markham Nolan

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Leadership on the Road

I love traditions. They are like little secrets that bind families, friends, and all kinds of groups together. We recently initiated a brand new tradition in our sweet blended family. Today, we leave for two weeks in England and Ireland with Tom’s grandson, Gabriel. It’s the first “trip of a lifetime” for each one of his (so far) six grandchildren when they turn 16. I keep my fingers and toes crossed that one day I’ll also add a few little “Grand Delights,” as we tenderly call them, to the big, boisterous mix but in the meantime, I’m loving every minute with these little gems.

I’ll be delivering seven short presentations on leadership conversations in Birmingham, England at a large veterinary conference so the timing was perfect to combine a little work and a little play along with this first run at what we think will be something fun for each grandchild to look forward to… almost as much as the grandparents who will get to experience the wonders of travel through the innocent eyes of a young person they love. We decided on this tradition for several reasons: 1) the lifelong memories sure to be formed, 2) the quality personal time with that individual child, and 3) the powerful lessons and the broad perspectives that can only be gained by getting out of our narrow daily world and learning that there is a big old wonderful world out there just waiting to be discovered.
All our experiences in life help to define and develop our leadership capacity and skills. It’s been my experience that travel is one of the best teachers in discovering our leadership depth. Here are a few lessons of which I am reminded and of which we will enjoy watching Gabriel navigate as well on this trip:

1) Comfortable with Discomfort
Getting comfortable with being uncomfortable is built in when traveling to a different country. Foods, people, customs, and which side of the road they drive on can all seem a bit foreign, overwhelming, and even a bit frightening in the beginning. Travel forces us out of our comfort zone and into our stretch zone where we know all the good stuff happens and is learned. Leadership is all about getting comfortable being a little uncomfortable.

2) New Perspectives
Travel helps us learn to tolerate and embrace the similarities and the differences in other peoples’ worlds. When we experience these, we are broadened and enriched. We are forced to examine our preconceived notions and prejudices. Leadership is all about broadening perspectives, challenging limiting beliefs, and tapping into the best in people.

3) Courage
It takes courage to try new foods, activities, languages, and share new ethnic or local traditions. Flexing our courage muscle is good for us and exposes us to things we would otherwise never know or understand. Leadership is all about displaying and encouraging courage.

4) Expanded Circles of Influence
We’ve made so many lifelong friends when we’ve traveled. We’ll spend one night with friends we’ve made on our past trips to the UK. Meeting new people broadens your circle of influence. We’ve been delighted by the rich insights, meals, and stories shared with our friends outside of our normal circles. Leadership is all about expanding and leveraging our circles of influence.

5) Self-Awareness
I was warned early on, “Be careful who you travel with because their true colors will come out.” They were so right. Travel tests our patience, will, creativity, determination, confidence, and of course… map-reading skills. Delayed flights, missed trains, lost luggage, wrong reservations, and torrential downpours can ruin an otherwise wonderful trip if the travelers are not able to master their expectations and emotions. When we travel, we get to practice focusing on what we can control and letting go of what we can’t. We must practice self-awareness balanced with the awareness of the needs of others around us. Leadership is all about a heightened self-awareness.

This week, whether you find yourself traveling across the globe, the country, the state or just across town to your job… remember that the opportunities to flex our leadership muscle show up everywhere and all the time. Grab those moments with both hands and … if you don’t have a trip to somewhere you’ve never been, get it on your calendar soon. You’ll be changed for the better and you’ll become a better leader in the process.


“Travel makes one modest.  You see what a tiny place you occupy in this world.”
~~Gustav Flaubert


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