My Top 5 Books of 2015

SnoopyILoveReading

I felt as if I were walking with destiny, and that all my life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial”

Winston Churchill

Destiny was my reading discovery in 2015.  It was an unintended but welcome consequence of reading superb writing about people who changed the world.  What follows is my top five books from my 2015 reading list with a brief reason for their selection.

#1 Traitor To His Class

H.W. Brands has always been a dry read for me, but “Traitor To His Class,” subtitled “The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt” breaths fire.  I have read a number of books about Franklin Roosevelt, but none clarified his personal courage, radical nonconformity, and visionary hopefulness quite like this volume.  By the time I reached the end of the book I wanted to change the world.  What I learned was it would have been far easier for Roosevelt to choose a comfortable life of privilege, but he instead embraced a radical life of service, which lead him into a destiny which gave hope to a despairing world.

#2 Johnny We Hardly Knew Ye

This book is authored by Kenneth P. O’Donnell and David F. Powers with Joe McCarthy.  I actually read this book in college, and remembered being inspired, so I embarked on a reread.   O’Donnell and Powers were close friends and White House assistants to John F. Kennedy.  Their story is an emotional one, filled with personal antidotes of the intimate journey they traveled with Kennedy from beginning to end.  Read this book if only for the account of the hunting trip at Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson’s ranch.  The lesson I learned is John F. Kennedy became president in large part because he had great friends, who recognized their destiny was inextricably tied to his. They sacrificed their individuality so that together with him they could turn the ideas of the New Frontier into a national reality.

#3 The Georgetown Set

Lloyd James beat out my favorite historian Doris Kearns Goodwin and her book “The Bully Pulpit” as my favorite about journalism, and as a result took second place.  His book “The Georgetown Set” was riveting from beginning to end.   Having lived in DC, and witnessed the importance of political journalism, it was inspiring to see and feel the power of relationship described in its pages.  Subtitled “Friends and Rivals in Cold War Washington,” I was left wishing for this type of courageous relationship journalism as contrasted with the ratings motivated media of today.  The lesson I learned is the major players in the spotlight are not always the most influential people on the ground.  Whether we appear large or small in the eyes of people, we should embrace our destiny, because our potential for influence could be greater than we imagine.

#4 The Wright Brothers

I still can’t remember what possessed me to read “The Wright Brothers” by David McCullough.  When it was initially published, I questioned why anyone would write a history about the discovery of air flight and the invention of the airplane.  After reading this book, which I began begrudgingly, two things became clear.  David McCullough is the premier historical storyteller of our time, and the Wright Brothers story needed to be told.  Their curiosity, courage, and endurance can be applied to any area of life for inspiration.  What truly moved me was the relationship between Wilbur and Orville, and that destiny is not about the individual but rather the team or in this case family!

#5 Destiny and Power

First of all, I am a Jon Meacham fan, because he embraces a political neutrality, which allows him to see deep into the soul of those whose lives he documents.  I am also a political junkie, whose entire childhood was shaped by a family of democrats living in a republican stronghold.  Both of these facts explain why I am a political independent…I like to see both sides.   Reading Destiny and Power I saw both sides, and came away impressed with George H.W. Bush.  Meacham does a wonderful job giving voice to the elder Bush through the very honest and compelling diary accounts of the former president.  I have never read anything from a president as humble, vulnerable, and authentic.  No matter where you stand politically (and I don’t agree on a lot with Bush), it is impossible not to appreciate the personal life of George H.W. Bush.  The lesson I learned is you don’t have to believe you are better than everyone else to believe you have an important destiny to fulfill.

Honorable Mentions

  1. Crucible of Command by William C. Davis
  2. C.S. Lewis – A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet by Robin Sachs
  3. Education of a Coach by David Halberstam
  4. Becoming Steve Jobs by Brent Schlender, Rick Tetzelli
  5. Brothers, Rivals, Victors by Jonathan W. Jordan
  6. Rebel Yell by S.C. Gwynne
  7. Wilson by A. Scott Berg

 

 

 

5 Reasons We Love The Force

Yoda

“The Force is what gives a Jedi his power. It’s an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us, penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together.”

Obi-Wan Kenobi

 “The Force Awakens” is upon us, which makes this a good time to reflect on “The Force,” which in my view is the real star in Star Wars.  Obi-Wan Kenobi gave us the best definition of “The Force,” when he explained it to Luke Skywalker in the 28 words above (How Star Wars Conquered the Universe, p. 58).

Here are five interesting and enjoyable reasons to consider for reasons why we love the Force.  They are in no particular order.

Reason #1 – The Tension Between Technology and Spirituality

VaderDeathStar

“We know that Vader believes the Force to be far superior to the technological power of the Death Star and that he can use it to choke people he disagrees with from across a room. Luke is taught to “let go your conscious mind” and “reach out with your feelings.” He is told the Force “will be with you, always.” Han Solo believes the Force a “hokey religion,” no substitute for a good blaster, but later grudgingly wishes for the Force to be with Luke.” (Taylor, page 58)

Since Star Wars first hit the screen in 1977 a cultural constant has been the tension between technological progress and spirituality (not merely religion but all aspects of mystery in the universe).  We enjoy movies which help us examine, question, and try to resolve the existential problems we face.

Reason #2 – The Battle Between Good and Evil

 dark side emperor

“But Lucas’s intent in the movies had been to distill religious beliefs that were already in existence, not to add a new one. “Knowing that the film was made for a young audience, I was trying to say, in a simple way, that there is a God and that there is both a good side and a bad side,” Lucas told his biographer Dale Pollock. “You have a choice between them, but the world works better if you’re on the good side.” (Taylor, pages 57-58)

While some may be disturbed by the spiritual overtones, there is no question that “The Force” adheres to a fundamental religio-philosophical principle, which is the existence of good and evil.  The profound journey in life is to choose between the light and dark sides of “The Force,” and this choice will determine our destiny.

Reason #3 – The Force as a Mystery

luke meets obiwan

“The Force is so basic a concept as to be universally appealing: a religion for the secular age that is so well suited to our times precisely because it is so bereft of detail. Everyone gets to add their own layers of meaning. Lucas, through a long process of trial and error, seems to have deliberately encouraged viewers’ unique interpretations. “The more detail I went into, the more it detracted from the concept I was trying to put forward,” Lucas recalled in 1997. “So the real essence was to deal with the Force but not be too specific about it.” (Taylor, page 58)

The first time I saw Star Wars I held no deep beliefs about anything other than success.  I can still remember being “Bewitched” by “Star Wars.”  What I mean is I felt the same emotion as when I watched “Bewitched” reruns on television, which is the mystery and wonder of the potential that there might be something beyond human power and ability.  In this way, I was step for step with Luke Skywalker in his discovery of “The Force,” and pursuit of its mysteries.  Apparently, this is exactly the quest Lucas hoped to encourage his viewers to take.

Reason #4 – The Power of the Force

luketrainingremote

Luke was able to destroy the Death Star because he puts his targeting computer aside and relies on the Force— you might just as well call it intuition. (Taylor, page 58)

Whether we find science or spirituality most compelling, each one of us believes there are capacities and power we are not yet tapping into.  “The Force” gives voice to the sixth sense we all have that there is more power available to us than we are currently using.  This makes it exciting to think there is nothing we can’t overcome or accomplish if we can only tap into the “Force.”

Reason #5 – The Force and Destiny

I can still remember watching Stars Wars at age 14.  One thing stood out to me more than anything else, which is each one of us had a destiny.  Watching Luke struggle to understand his destiny, the path he must travel, and need to master “The Force” was compelling.  This “Hero’s Journey” is not unlike the narrative identified by Joseph Campbell as a guiding principle in storytelling be it mythological, religious, or psychological.  This capacity to speak to every metaphysical demographic is probably why George Lucas, Star Wars, and especially “The Force” are so universally loved.

May The Force Be with You!

 

 

 

LeBron Assists Special Needs!

This NBA 2016 season the Golden State Warriors are the talk of the town.  Lead by Stephen Curry they are playing the game at a historic level, and for many Curry is the best and most charismatic player in the NBA.

This leaves LeBron James a bit in the shadows, which is strange since we haven’t seen a player of his capability ever before.   It is a lesson to all of us about time, how it moves on eventually lifting younger people into the spotlight, and leaving those growing more mature to redefine themselves.

This film snapshot of LeBron James publicly congratulating a Special Olympics athlete, and expressing a bond with him tells me LeBron is going to be special beyond basketball.  The authentic expression of connection with this young man who was wearing shoes LeBron designed for kids with special needs is nothing short of breathtaking.

Take a look and see if you conclude what I have concluded, which is LeBron James is bigger than basketball, and understands the value of his brand to lift up and include those with special needs.

This may be the most important assist of his career, and one which I hope other players imitate!

6 Reasons Standards are Better Than Rules

duke_coach_k

 

Leaders and students of leadership should study Mike Krzyzewski (Coach K).   This interview by Graham Bensinger makes this easier.  Mr. Bensinger , surfaced subtle yet revealing answers from Coach K.  One of the most significant was his distinction between rules and standards.
6 things I learned from this interview.
  1. Rules are enforced, Standards are developed
  2. Leaders who enforce rules will rarely develop people
  3. Leaders who develop standards develop people and other leaders
  4. The process of developing standards takes time
  5. Shared standards inspire ownership
  6. Ownership reduces the need for delegation and eliminates micromanaging
Conclusion:  Leadership burnout decreases as ownership increases.  Coach K speaks from personal experience on this topic here.

My Son, His Friends, and an Inclusive Film

“Art is the Queen of all sciences communicating knowledge to all the generations of the world.”

Leonardo da Vinci

The scientific discovery and technological wizardry of the 21st century can obscure the power of art.  Science may discover and even breakthrough, but only art makes the eye twinkle and the heart beat.

The twinkling of my eye and beating of my heart were pronounced when I heard about my son, his friends, and a new film in development.

Inclusion As Inspiration

My son Jonathan has never allowed Down Syndrome to keep him from building friendships with his typical peers.  Ben Middlekauf is one of those typical peers.   Ben is  younger than Jonathan, but growing up he always wanted to hang out.  Ben was attracted to and amazed by the friendship Jonathan shared with Will Eleazer.

Ben was part of the original team responsible for building the award winning E-Soccer program, so inclusion has been part of his life from the beginning, but being younger he was not a direct peer of Jonathan’s.  What he had was a unique perch from which to develop a perspective on how special needs and typical kids become best friends.   Ben has plummeted the depths of his inclusive experience to write a script for his movie project called Tentura.   He wants to inspire everyone with the power of inclusive friendship.

Tentura Promo from Benjamin Middlekauff on Vimeo.

Inclusion As Art

Ben attends NYU where he has developed a stellar team to create his movie inspired by the inclusive friendship Jonathan and Will share.

While this movie is not specially about special needs children or adults, it is an artistic attempt to communicate the lessons learned and impact of an inclusive friendship on a typical kid growing up.  This typical kid is Ben Middlekauf and I am personally excited about his effort. They are in the developmental process for the film, and if you would like to know more or even support it financially you can get more information here.

Note:  For those who want to see Ben’s work involving those with special needs, the story below is on a young man with Asperger’s.

Point B from Benjamin Middlekauff on Vimeo.

Inclusion As Family

Why am I so excited and sharing this artistic work with you?  I remember Ben when he was around 5 years old, and my hope was our inclusive E-Sports programs would leave a lifelong imprint on youngsters like him.  My dream was these kids would grow up and promote inclusion…that they would always have a place in their heart for those with special needs.

Ben has fulfilled my deepest hopes and aspirations.  He even went out of his way to assure me our privacy as a family wouldn’t be infringed upon, and as you can see by the artistry, symbolism, and metaphor he has fulfilled his promise.  Ben is truly family and I wish him the utmost success in his endeavor.  We need more students  and leaders like him!

Two Steps From Good to Great

Jim Collins is one of my favorite thinkers and writers.  I have reopened his book Good to Great thirteen years after my initial reading.   I discovered two things.  All quotes are from his book Good to Great.

Level 5 Leadership

Thirteen years ago I was inspired by his definition and explanation of Level 5 leadership.   What surprised me is how much influence his ideas have had on my own view of leadership.   In fact, without really knowing it the standard I have been holding myself to is Level 5 leadership.   There are two core qualities possessed by the Level 5 leader.

  1. Compelling Modesty – personal humility or never wanting to become “larger-than-life heroes.  They never aspired to be put on a pedestal or become unreachable icons. They were seemingly ordinary people quietly producing extraordinary results.”
  2. Unwavering Resolve – professional will or a person with “ferocious resolve, an almost stoic determination to do whatever needs to be done to make the company great.”

While I realize I may never reach this level of leadership it remains my gold standard.

Hedgehog or Fox?

In his famous essay “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” Isaiah Berlin divided the world into hedgehogs and foxes, based upon an ancient Greek parable: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”

Jim Collins, Good to Great

I failed to see the significance of the Hedgehog and Fox in my first reading of Good to Great.  My eyes have now been opened.  The Hedgehog is about focus and simplicity.  The Fox is about overreach and complexity.

I must become the Hedgehog.  Perhaps I will write more on this in the future.  Until then…are you the hedgehog or the fox?

 

 

 

Brady Hoke Keeps Leadership Simple

Leadership is a complicated pursuit.   University of Michigan football coach Brady Hoke makes it simple.   Why?

Coaches coach for all sorts of reasons: ego, an obsession with winning, innate competitiveness, the desire to outsmart the guy on the other sideline. Hoke takes his greatest joy in getting through to his players. He says things like, “Character wins in life, and character wins out there,” pointing toward Michigan Stadium. He says he takes his greatest pride in 69 out of 69 seniors graduating in three years. He says his team is like having “115 sons.”

Michael Rosenberg, SI, The Right Man For Michigan?

Brady Hoke simplifies the complicated pursuit of leadership because he has the right motivation.  How do we know?  Read the Michael Rosenberg article and this becomes clear.  He is risking his job to build the right way and I happen to like his way, because he is building to last.

The only truly reliable source of stability is a strong inner core and the willingness to change and adapt everything except that core. People cannot reliably predict where they are going and how their lives will unfold, especially in today’s unpredictable world. Those who built the visionary companies wisely understood that it is better to understand who you are than where you are going—for where you are going will almost certainly change.  It is a lesson as relevant to our individual lives as to aspiring visionary companies.

Collins, Jim; Porras, Jerry I. (2011-08-30).  Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies. Harper Collins, Inc.

 

6 Questions to Help You Say No

Focus is one of my constant pursuits.  Fortune Magazine published “Why saying no gets you ahead,” which is an excellent article on focus and the art of saying no.

Focus is incredibly difficult.  The ability to say no is an essential component of focus.  There are six questions I asked myself after reading this article, and taken together each one has helped me improve my ability to say no and focus.

  1. Why is saying no so difficult?
  2. Why are boundaries and good fences important?
  3. Why should we pause 24 hours before saying yes?
  4. How can I say no without making enemies?
  5. How can simplicity prevent the conflict over saying no?
  6. Why should we develop good boundaries and confidently stick to them?

6 Ways Winston Churchill Inspired

Alone Churchill

“Before you can inspire with emotion, you must be swamped with it yourself. Before you can move their tears, your own must flow. To convince them, you must yourself believe.”

—Winston Churchill

Winston Spencer Churchill is one of the most inspiring figures of the twentieth century.   My favorite volume about his life is called “The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill Alone.”    I am reading it for a second time.   This reading has increased my understanding of what made Churchill one of the greatest leaders the world has ever known.   One might argue he was the greatest.  Here are six reasons I believe he could be considered the greatest, based on my reading of this book, which I simply call “Alone.”

  1. Passion – Churchill inspired with emotion, because he was swamped with it himself.
  2. Resilience – Churchill survived failure.  As a result, failure no longer held him under its control.
  3. Confidence – Churchill believed he was here for a reason.   As a result, neither difficulty nor defeat could stop his progress.
  4. Hard Work – Once defeated and in debt he had to write to survive financially.   His work ethic was extraordinary.
  5. Friendship – Consistent in everything he did was a desire for and capacity to build relationships.
  6. Courage – Through staggering opposition and criticism he kept going confident he alone was right about Hitler.

Focus and Simplicity

Focus was the first word to enter my mind when Douglas Hommert sent me this picture.   Doug is a phenomenal photographer and knowing my love of hawks he sends me incredible pictures.   I named the hawk pictured below Focus.   He helps me remember.

 Immature Red Tailed Hawk Chase Squirrel

 

I am in constant pursuit of focus.  Focus produces simplicity which increases productivity.  Basketball players might use the word efficiency instead of productivity.  What they mean is there is no wasted motion.   Productivity means there is no wasted life.   When my life is productive or efficient I am able to build my family and career.  My life will have balance.  This is why I consider focus and simplicity of utmost importance.

Another Hommert Original

A Hommert Original

What are two things we can do to develop the focus and simplicity necessary for a balanced life?

Focus is saying No

 “People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying no to 1,000 things.”

Steve Jobs, (Apple Worldwide Developers’ Conference, 1997)

The first step toward focus is developing the courage to say no.  Focus will be elusive and simplicity impossible until we learn to say no.

Red Shoulder Hawk

Another Hommert Original

Simplicity is Hard Work

“That’s been one of my mantras — focus and simplicity. Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.”

Steve Jobs, Businessweek, May 25, 1998

Once we learn to say no and become focused we must eliminate the idea that simple is easy.

Click Picture to order print

Click Picture to order print