Monthly Archives: August 2010

Prime Your Pump

There’s an old story about a thirsty traveler who came across a pump in the desert. An attached note explained that there was a jar of water buried nearby to prime the pump.

“You’ve got to give before you get,” the note said.

The traveler was faced with a dilemma.  If he poured the water into the pump, he couldn’t get it back.  Worse, he was going to have to work hard to pump out the water from the well with no guarantee of success.  However, if he drank the stale water in the jar, he would never get to taste the sweet, cool water from the well.  He would also ruin any chance for other travelers to get any water from the well, since there would be no way to prime it.

So, with a sigh, the traveler poured the water into the pump to prime it.  Then he began pumping the lever as fast as he could.  He pumped, and he pumped, but no water came out.  There wasn’t even the sound of water coming up the pipes.  But he pumped and pumped some more….and then some more….and then some more.  Even though he was becoming increasingly frustrated, he knew he couldn’t stop.  As soon as he stopped pumping, the water would go back down into the well.

Just when he didn’t think he could pump even one more time, he heard a gurgle of water….then another….and then, to his joy and amazement, out poured a flood of cool, clear water!!  Everything changed at that point. He no longer had to pump and pump to get the water out.  The slightest pressure sent water gushing from the spout. Slow, easy strokes were all he needed to keep the water flowing.

So it is with success in just about any worthwhile endeavor you undertake.  You’ve got to give before you get.   You’ve got to work hard, and you’ll have no guarantee of success.  If you stop working hard, your success will slip away from you, but if you persist even beyond what you think you can do, your reward will often come.

Don’t drink the stale waters of instant gratification; put in the work to prime your pump!



Filed under Challenges, Change, Convenience, delayed gratification, determination, discipline, faith, growth, habits, Inconvenience, Instant Gratification, Preparation, sacrifice, Sowing and reaping, Spiritual Growth, stewardship, temptation, waiting on the Lord

The Franklin Decision-Maker

In a letter to Joseph Priestly (the English scientist who discovered oxygen), Benjamin Franklin once commented about a perplexing decision that Priestly was wrestling with. Franklin wrote to his chemist friend that the problem of deciding was caused by the fact that our minds can’t examine both sides of an issue at one time.

To help solve the dilemma, Franklin shared that he often divided a sheet of paper into two columns and labeled one Pro and the other Con. Then in the course of three or four days, he would write in each column any arguments for that side.  By the end of the week, he had a clear picture of the issue and could make a decision easily.  Often the column with the longest list was the best decision.  Occasionally, though, one column would have an argument that carried more weight than all the arguments on the other side.  Either way, Franklin was able to evaluate both sides of the issue at once.

You’ve probably used this method to make decisions.  (If you are in sales, you’ve probably used it to close a sale.)  Remember it the next time you’ve got a particularly tough decision to make.

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Filed under Challenges, Decision Making, Problem Solving

Pick a Winner

How many superstar athletes do you know of that went on to become great coaches?  Not many, I bet.  It rarely happens, because the skill set that makes the best athletes has very little overlap with the skill set that makes great coaches.  In fact, some of the things you need to be great as an athlete (i.e. a burning desire to be the best) work at cross purposes to what you need to be a great coach (i.e. a burning desire to help others to be the best they can be).

This principle is true on our teams, as well.  The best individual producers are not necessarily the best qualified for leadership.  Yet, because we don’t know how to identify leadership potential, we promote on what we can measure: aptitude in their current role.  This is a simple approach, but it’s often ineffective.  Promoting your top producer to manager may create more problems than it solves.  Achievement-minded people often struggle with leadership, because it requires that they switch their focus from their personal goals to the goals of the team.  The drive that was so necessary in their previous role often causes interpersonal problems with their team members.  Their strength then becomes a weakness.

Achievement-minded people also find it difficult to delegate.  From their viewpoint, no one can do it as well as they can (and they are probably right – they are the superstars, remember).  Besides, much of what they do so well is rooted in talent.  While skills can be taught, talent is part of our genetic code.  Michael Jordan can teach you some of the fundamentals and advanced skills of basketball, but he can’t teach you to be great unless you are already naturally gifted athletically.

Instead of promoting the same type of people over and over and expecting different results, why not try to identify an individual’s talent for leadership?  While this can be challenging considering our team members’ job responsibilities, it isn’t impossible.  As you talk to your team members, keep your antennae out for the following leadership competencies:

  • Leadership in other environments (church, community, trade organizations, family…)
  • Dissatisfaction with the status quo
  • Willingness to take on more responsibility
  • Ability to overcome obstacles to complete a task
  • Respect of his/her peers (not to be read “Liked by his/her peers” – they are not the same thing)
  • Integrity
  • Willingness to give away credit

Obviously, this isn’t a comprehensive list.  Add competencies of your own to round it out.  If you can’t glean enough information about your team members from observation and interaction, give them an opportunity to lead a project team or task force.  Let them head the next meeting.  Put them in charge of organizing the team off-site.  If all else fails, ask them to give you examples of each competency from their personal experience.  Starting with the right criteria makes all the difference.

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Filed under delegation, leadership, management, mentoring, Promotion, Succession, teambuilding

The Motivation Killer

A group of young boys regularly stopped by an old man’s house on their way home from school.  Whenever the old man was out in the yard, they would insult him mercilessly.  One day, after enduring another round of jeers about how ugly and old and stupid he was, the old man came up with an idea.  He called out to the boys and met them at the sidewalk.

“Boys, this might surprise you, but I find your jokes at my expense quite funny.  In fact, for anyone who comes back tomorrow and insults me, I’ll pay one dollar!”

The boys were surprised but excited about the prospect of making a dollar.  They showed up early the next day and insulted the old man loudly until he came over and gave them their dollar.

“That was great, boys, but I’m afraid I’ll only be able to offer you a quarter for coming by tomorrow.”

A quarter wasn’t a dollar, but it was still enough to impress the young boys.  Faithfully, they came back the next day and dutifully delivered their insults until the old man came over and gave them their quarter.

“Ah, boys, those were the best yet!  Unfortunately, all I can reward you with tomorrow is a penny for your efforts.”

“What?  A stinkin’ penny!  Forget it!”  And the boys never came back again.

This story is funny, but it also teaches an important lesson about human nature.  When we are rewarded for doing something, we often lose the enjoyment that the task originally brought just for doing it.  It’s almost as if we make the decision that “if they have to bribe me to do this, it must not be worth doing.”  In psychology terms, extrinsic rewards (incentives, bonuses, awards, gifts, accolades…) kill intrinsic motivation (enjoyment of the task for its own sake).

In other words, when we say, “do this and you’ll get that,” our focus is shifted off the “this” (the task) and to the “that” (the reward).  It’s a counter-intuitive bait and switch.  The purpose of the reward is to get better performance, right?  But instead, what often happens is that performers see the task as an obstacle to the reward.  Before long, they are taking the quickest route to completion in order to claim their prize.  Unfortunately, the quickest route is rarely the highest quality route.

Could it be that some of our reward systems are sabotaging the improved results they are intended to create?  Don’t be so quick to offer incentives.  Some work is worth doing in and of itself.  Maybe all you need to do is help the performer see and understand the rewards that are already there.

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Filed under buy-in, commitment, delayed gratification, delegation, expectations, Incentives, Instant Gratification, motivation, ownership, Rewards

Building to Code

When deadly Hurricane Andrew hit Florida  years ago, it destroyed most everything in its path.  But when the winds and rain died down, TV networks used their cameras to capture the image of a lone house standing firmly in place amidst an entire neighborhood of debris.  When asked why his house was the only one in the neighborhood still standing, the owner replied:

“I built this house myself.  I built it according to the Florida state building code. When the code called for 2″ x 6″ roof trusses, I used 2″ x 6″ roof trusses. When it called for screws, I used screws. I was told that a house built according to code could withstand a hurricane. I did, and it did. I suppose no one else around here followed the code.”

Now, this man might have said to himself at the time he built his house, “Gee, I sure feel silly spending all this extra time, money and effort on precautions that might never be needed.  Everyone else in the neighborhood is cutting corners.  I think I even heard them laughing at me for adhering to all these unnecessary requirements.  I wonder if it’s really worth it.”  But in the end, he followed the code and was rewarded with the last house standing after the storm.

Of course, this story reminds me of the story Jesus told about the wise and foolish builders.  You can find it in Matthew 7:24-27. Two builders built – one on sand and one on rock.  When the storms came, the house on the rock withstood the wind and the rains.  Jesus said that the builders represented two types of people – those who build their lives on Jesus (the Rock, the solid foundation) and those who build their lives on anything else (the wisdom of this world, other religions, etc.)

Taking the metaphor a little further, “building to code” means living our life based on what we read in our Bible.  It may not always make sense to us at the time what God asks us to do, but if we will follow Him obediently, we will find that we can weather the storms of this life.  So, build on the Rock and follow the Code.  It will keep you out of the rain.

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Filed under Challenges, commitment, Compromise, Convenience, delayed gratification, determination, God's Will, Hardship, Instant Gratification, obedience, submission

Your Right-Hand Man

Everyone wants to have a right-hand man (or woman), right?  Someone you trust implicitly.  Someone who will cover for you in a pinch and make decisions just as you would have made them.  Someone you can groom to be your successor when the inevitable promotion opportunities come rolling in.

The expression “right-hand man” (as well as the tradition of seating the guest of honor at the right hand of the host) originated from times when leaders had to worry about assassination on a daily basis.  Before the days of explosives and automatic weapons, the easiest way to assassinate a leader was to have the person sitting to his right grab his sword arm and hang on, rendering him relatively helpless so that others in the room could then kill him.  If you were a leader, it was in your best interest to put the person you most trusted next to your sword arm. Since most people are right-handed, the “right-hand man” came to be synonymous for someone you could trust with your life.

Leadership can be a lonely role.  Having a right-hand man (person) will encourage you when things get rough.  A trusted “second-in-command” can keep an eye on your blind spots and warn you when you’re stepping into dangerous territory.  If you don’t have one, it’s never too late to develop that person (or to look for someone with the right qualities to fill your next open position.)

(Interestingly enough, the word “sinister” originally meant “on the left.”  Maybe that’s where we get the idea of “hold your friends close but your enemies closer.”)

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Filed under character, conflict, deception, delegation, leadership, management, Protection, Relationships, trust

Summer Slide

As the kids head back to school, teachers everywhere are facing a common dilemma – the “summer slide.”  Over the summer break, kids’ reading abilities, study habits and knowledge levels erode as books and other intellectual pursuits take a back seat to swimming, movie-going and Nintendo-playing.  Teachers often have to repeat up to six weeks of lessons from the previous year just to get the students back to their previous levels of proficiency and knowledge.

We may know this happens intuitively, but Hopkins sociologists Karl Alexander and Doris Entwisle have actually studied the phenomenon.  They followed 790 randomly-selected Baltimore students from 20 different schools from the time they entered the first grade in 1982 through their graduations in 1994.  By comparing testing scores from one year to the next, the researchers were able to see the impact a lack of academic focus had during the summer.

Those students who enrolled in summer camps, music or art lessons or who were encouraged to read during the break tended to maintain knowledge levels, while those who had less focus during the summer tended to forget more of what they had learned the previous school year.  From year to year, these learning gaps grew wider and wider between the two types of students so that by the end of the fifth grade, the difference in verbal abilities was two years and the difference in math abilities was a year-and-a-half.

Now, I’m guessing that not too many of us adults have been to summer camp, music or art lessons in quite awhile, and statistics don’t look too good for our reading habits.  A Gallup poll on reading habits in 1990 found that the proportion of Americans who had not completed a book in the previous year had doubled to 16% since the previous poll in 1978 reported 8%.  An Associated Press-Ipsos poll in 2007 had the number at a dismal 25%.  If these numbers continue, over 50% of us won’t read any books by 2052, and no one will be reading books by the year 2112.

A.C. Neilson (the company that measures television ratings in the U.S.) reported in 1998 that six million videos are checked out every day (and that’s just my family…).  Compare that to three million library books checked out in the average day (and a good percentage of those are by students).  Neilson also tells us that the average American family watches over four hours of T.V. a day (equivalent to two months of non-stop T.V. viewing a year).

So, how’s your “summer slide” going?  If elementary-age children could lose one-and-a-half to two years of verbal and mathematical ability after just five summers, what does that mean for us (who have had a few more summers on our record)?  Are you actively learning anything, or has life since high school or college been one big summer break?  Don’t let those brain cells drain away; it’s use ‘em or lose ‘em!  Head to the library…we’ve got some catching up to do!

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Filed under brain, growth, habits, learning, Teaching