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November 20, 2013

Leadership in a 1,000 Words

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Leadership is ever-present.  We experience it almost from the time we come into this world until the end.  When we are very young our parents, or guardians, guide, teach, and care for us.  They influence us to achieve common or at least desired goals.  Teachers and coaches do the same, though in a somewhat more detached and less informal way.  The same can be said of supervisors, religious leaders, and various professionals we solicit to assist us.  Friends and colleagues also display leadership as do civil servants, like police officers, firefighters, and military personnel.  Leadership is part of our lives and it would be difficult, if not outright impossible to thrive, or at least survive long, without it.

Leadership can have positive, negative and insignificant influence on our lives, depending upon your perspective.   Similarly, some lessons learned from leaders stay with you for a lifetime, such as the way some address elders as sir or ma’am, while others fade quickly like wearing your clothes a certain way to be perceived as “cool”.

It has been talked and written about since at least the time of the ancient Greeks and very likely much earlier than that.   Some who study leadership will tell you that it is learned from observing and experiencing it.  Others believe that leadership is innate and that we are born with it.  Another group advocates that leadership is some combination of the two.  Formal theories have been devised that range from leadership being explained by a series of rewards and punishments, to personality traits both in-born as well as learned, to situational factors, which give weight to context as well as to individuals.  There are also theories that seek to explain it by relationships, with power being a key ingredient, as well as many hybrid approaches.

Most will agree that great leadership has the ability to inspire, motivate, and transform outcomes from group endeavors of all types.  Many civilizations, nations, corporations, groups, and individuals have benefited from leadership.  Similarly, much damage, destruction, and pain has also been wrought by people exercising leadership for conquest or oppression.  These days, if you desire, you can take classes in leadership and even earn an undergraduate or advanced degree in it.  Innumerable books have been written about leadership, especially in the last few years, and yet we still do not really know much more than we did when we first started wondering about it.

One of my early jobs was as a dishwasher in a college cafeteria.  The supervisor was a man named Rick and he led a team of young people like me by being actively involved and often personally teaching us how to complete required tasks.  He did this usually with a smile and was always willing to lend a hand, whenever needed.  The employees, my peers, respected him and the work was also always well done and completed on time.

Many years later, I worked for a boss who knew little about the operation and cared nothing for the staff.  As far as we could tell he spent much of his time simply goofing off in his office.  The decisions that he made were done with little regard for facts and the results were not given any real scrutiny.  The end was predictable and he was soon out of work.

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A leader that I later worked for was very obviously tired and did not want the job.  However, because of the circumstances, he had little choice but to stay.  The staff respected his experience and he obviously worked very hard.  However, he was easily manipulated and many of the employees took advantage of this, which caused great problems for the organization.

Yet another individual I worked with was very successful at her job and made many improvements.  She listened to employees, analyzed issues thoroughly, and quite obviously cared about the organization and those who were employed by it.  She worked hard to enhance organizational performance and challenged everyone to do the same.  She was focused more on the work and less on what was in it for her and the organization prospered under her leadership.

These types of experiences, and many more, combined with my education and training have provided me with a unique vantage point from which to contemplate leadership.   These days, I really do not think any of the theories satisfactorily explain or account for all facets of leadership.  This is because human behavior is complex (any mom, little leaguer, or bartender knows this) and is very likely influenced by both inherited as well as learned factors.  The expression of inherited factors itself is complex and is probably affected by multiple environmental influences, in ways that we do not yet completely understand.

Additionally, the context of any situation contains a multitude of factors that can and likely do alter outcomes.  In this regard, followers themselves also influence leadership through formal and informal means, though this is seldom taken into account when evaluating the effectiveness of leadership.  Similarly, individual definitions of leadership are diverse and not fixed.  So what defines good leadership to one person may be perceived as inadequate, ineffective, or just plain bad to another and both could be evaluated differently by the same person on a different day!  Follower and leader moods and attitudes are also not fixed and these too will affect perceptions and subsequent behavior (i.e., the world looks better when we are happy than when things are not going our way).

Where does this leave us?  At this point, with three thoughts:

  1. Leadership is important
  2. We do not yet really understand leadership
  3. That understanding leadership should be a priority for everyone

It is important to keep these in mind, because there are some who claim to fully understand it and will pass on their knowledge to anyone who will listen, or pay, for the privilege.  Until we fully understand it, which may take a while, keep this in mind and decide for yourself just what constitutes effective leadership!

April 17, 2012

Uncle Joe

Uncle Joe is the name of a common relation that a lot of us know and love.  My particular Uncle Joe is actually my father’s Uncle Joe and his birth name was Jose.  I did not know my Uncle Joe well at all, but he nonetheless had an impact on me and many others during his life, and after.

What I know about his background is that he was born in 1908 in the middle of Mexico, in a state called Zacatecas, in the capital by the same name, in a sleepy village called Jerez.  The region was well settled by the Spaniards less than 100 years after Columbus opened up the new world to the west.  Uncle Joe was the fourth born child and though he was the third born son, he was named after his father.  When Uncle Joe was little, his family owned a ranch in a country that would soon be in the midst of yet another revolution.   The house where he was born was made from adobe and looked to be ancient when I saw it some eight decades after he was born (my grandfather, his brother, was born in the same house).

Uncle Joe spent his early years helping out with the ranch and going to school.  When the revolution, which started in 1910 and lasted until 1920, began to intensify the family decided to move to the United States.  By the time Uncle Joe was 12 he was living in Chandler, Arizona and later in Colorado with his father and older brothers working in fields, mines, and as labor to support themselves and the family.  Eventually, they relocated to southern California and made it their new home.

As far as I can tell, during the 1930’s, when he was in his 20’s, uncle Joe worked in sales.  He was single and had no children.  However, he did have many brothers and sisters, in-laws, and nieces and nephews, some of whom he was close to like my father and grandparents.  In 1936 he applied to become a naturalized US citizen, which was eventually granted.  To me, the really interesting part of his story begins when he joined the Merchant Marines sometime during the late 1930’s or early 1940’s, when Uncle Joe was in his 30’s.

Before I go on, the United States Merchant Marines, for those who are unfamiliar, consists of a fleet of privately owned ocean vessels that are operated by the government or private sector.  The fleet transports goods and services in and out of U.S. waters.  During times of peace, they transport passengers as well as cargo, but in wartime they function as an auxiliary to the Navy.  In the latter capacity, they transport service members, supplies, and cargo directly for the military.  I knew little about this until Uncle Joe passed away, at which time I checked to see if he was eligible for any Veteran’s benefits, since he worked in the Merchant Marines during World War II, the Korean Conflict, and the Vietnam War.

When Uncle Joe was in the Merchant Marines he traveled all over the world (literally).  Based upon his letters, he loved seeing new places.  There are pictures of him in Egypt next to the pyramids, strolling down Canal Street in New Orleans, enjoying dinner in Paris, and exploring the Alamo in Texas.  He traveled to Europe and researched the family’s genealogy in Spain and visited the beaches in South Africa.  He enjoyed dancing in Tokyo and went down under to hike the outback in Australia.  He visited the Azores and Tahiti and even enjoyed the night life in Rio.  In short, this man who was born in rural Mexico shortly after the turn of the century found a career a little later in life than his contemporaries that enabled him to explore the world!

I know this mainly from his stories which were retold to me by my father and grandparents.  I know this also from the circulated coins, bills, and stamps that he brought back and gave to my father from all of his many ports of call.  When I was a child, I would look at the foreign bills and change with their exotic writing and pictures and imagine what these places were really like.  Uncle Joe wrote post cards to my father and grandparents, many of which survived multiple moves and clearly showed how much he enjoyed his life.

When I was little, Uncle Joe was to me an intense man who always seemed to be far away, even when he was in the same room.  He was pleasant but did not say much to the little boy that I was then.  My father and grandparents always loved to see him and they would talk for hours about times long past.   He was different from my grandfather in that he never did marry nor have any children.  The rumor in the family was that early investments in property enabled him to have a comfortable retirement, though I never saw any evidence of that.  After I came back from a tour overseas in the Army, I asked my father to have Uncle Joe write down any information that he had about the family, so I could share it with mine someday.  Uncle Joe did that, though he confused me with my brother, and I have since shared that letter with extended members of the family who found the contents to be priceless in filling in gaps of family history that appeared after his generation had passed.

I have been fortunate to travel to many faraway places in my life, but I have not yet seen a fraction of what Uncle Joe has seen.  Whenever, I visit a new area, I invariably wonder to myself if Uncle Joe has been there before me.  When my father and I were in Macau, we ducked in to a little piano bar to take a break from sight-seeing one day.  Near our table was a small plaque that indicated that this was the place where the Pan Am Clipper planes landed.  I asked my father if he thought Uncle Joe might have stopped there, to which he replied that knowing him he probably did!

Twenty years ago, Uncle Joe, who was then 84 years old, had a stroke and was hospitalized.  I took my grandparents to see him one afternoon.  He was in bed and could barely speak and was pale and drawn, but the minute he noticed my grandparents, he became more alert and even managed to smile, just a little.  They visited for a while with my grandparents doing the talking but aside from the obvious, Uncle Joe was different this time.  That distant look that he had always had whenever I saw him before was gone.  It was replaced with a tired, weak, but warm and satisfied expression of a man who realized his time was nearly up and who was somehow grateful nonetheless to be where he was at that moment.

Uncle Joe (Jose C. Campos) is gone now and since he has departed, I have thought a lot about him and the legacy that he left.  He did not, to my knowledge, leave a large estate, or a forlorn widow or fatherless children behind.  He did not write books, compose music, cure a disease, or discover a new planet.  His legacy was much simpler in that he lived his life the way he wanted to, in an era when many would not or could not do it.  In the process he showed those around him that they could do the same!

May 24, 2011

Lessons learned from a career spent working in Human Resources

My career started with a job as a Personnel Administration Specialist years ago and I have since spent the majority of it in Human Resources Management.  I have managed personnel in very large to small organizations, on four continents and across such diverse industries as medical, engineering, government, training, military, contracting, and consulting.  These have included for profit, nonprofit, privately held and publicly traded organizations.

It has been an interesting experience though like many careers it has included more than its share of challenges resulting in numerous successes and a few set-backs.  Overall I have enjoyed it and I have been fortunate to work with some terrific people and have assisted my employers in creating numerous positive outcomes in their organizations.

You would probably not be surprised to learn that I definitely did not grow up thinking that I someday wanted to be a Vice President of Human Resources or even a Personnel Administrator.  Rather, as often happens, I stumbled into the career by chance more than anything else.  At 16, I started college and was focused on a career in the hard sciences, but along the way, probably because of my age, I changed my mind several times.  After a couple of years, I realized that I needed to take a break from university life and see the world. This is when I decided to join the Army, which I probably selected after watching way too many MASH episodes on TV when growing up!

I took the Army’s career aptitude test and my scores were such that I was told that I could choose any field that “was open at the time” (the quotations are because I was told that not all careers were open at any given time). Even though I had the education, I decided against officer candidate school, as I wanted the enlisted experience like my parents.  I also knew, even at that time, that the military would not be a career for me but rather just a start to my professional life, whatever that would be.

I spent several hours with the recruiter discussing all of the “available” career options, and about half way through it was obvious to both of us that it was clearly a process of elimination.  Another couple of hours after that and I was discouraged because none of the careers that “were open” at the time appealed to me.  Finally, one of the last options that the then completely exasperated recruiter mentioned was Personnel Administration Specialist.  I was skeptical and asked the recruiter what the job entailed, to which he replied that it was an office job that involved the usual filing, typing, answering the phones, ad etc.  He also added that it included extensive interaction with people and that I would be involved in sometimes complex problem solving that goes along with it.  The last part of his response was the hook that interested me and so I signed on the dotted line, which in the case of the military is literally what I did that afternoon!

When I think back, I realize that I had absolutely no idea what I was getting into! Since then, I have counseled many, broken up fights, mediated (literally), negotiated, convinced, listened, advocated, and endured (at times) just about every situation that you can think of that could occur in the workplace and some that you would not!  These include but are not limited to; promotions, bullying, interviewing, demotions, awards, deaths, restructurings, layoffs, job offers, collective bargaining, accommodations, workplace romances, and more.  I have had to help long term employees pack up their belongings, due to a bad decision or two that they made, and have tendered job offers for very large compensation packages and have sometimes been told that it was not enough!  Job candidates have also occasionally falsified their applications and one even had associates lie to cover it up!  Unfortunately, I also had to tell family members that their loved ones would not be coming home again.  On the positive side, I have developed employees and watched as they were promoted, mentored workers, and rebuilt and built Human Resource departments from scratch that supported significant organizational growth!

I could go on and on, but you get the idea.  Human Resources is about managing people at work, and all of the good, bad, and indifferent aspects that are associated with it.  It is also about equity and perceptions about what is fair and, more often, what is not.  As an organizational function it is not a glamorous job, nor is it still completely understood or fully appreciated.  It is nonetheless important, especially when you are the employee who has an issue and needs assistance or when you are a supervisor trying to get the job done.

Since you are still reading this, I am sure your question is, that is all great but what lessons have you learned from all of this Anthony and can you really distill it in a few lines, because this is a blog and not a book after all?  My answer is, and you would expect no other, that yes, I absolutely can summarize the most important lessons learned and here they are:

  1. Three or more sides are common – This is why situations must be understood based on facts.
  2. The workplace is not a democracy – This is primarily because Employers are organizations that are focused on either providing services or making goods, ideally, as efficiently as possible.
  3. Laws are not just for others to follow – This also applies to policies and work rules as well and if they are not followed the result is disorganization, which is the opposite of organization!
  4. Some people actually enjoy their work – I have met many who do, so I know they are out there!
  5. Some bosses really do care – They usually do not advertise this and are often modest about it!
  6. Indecision is a choice and it is often the wrong one to make at work – Avoiding problems on the job frequently makes things worse!
  7. People are important – I could not have spent so many years in the field without believing this!

We all have lessons learned at work, whatever field you are in, but when your career involves people, as Human Resources does, the lessons learned are relevant for everyone!

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