I have learned many lessons about leadership over the years, but among the most powerful came while teaching at an inner-city high school in Flint, Michigan. In mid-year, I took a job teaching woodshop. The previous instructor had found himself locked in a storage cage by his 2nd period class. He got out during 4th period, and immediately quit.

In the 1970s, the boys who were enrolled in woodshop often weren’t cutting it in regular classrooms. The logic of putting disruptive — and sometimes aggressive — students in a classroom with sharp instruments and dangerous power machines escaped me. But somebody had to do it, and I needed the job.

While I wasn’t thinking about leadership at the time, the lessons I learned in that classroom are highly relevant for business leaders today. Going in, I decided to pay attention to four specific things.

First, I had to decide who I was going to “see” in my woodshop classroom. How I saw these boys, and what I believed they were capable of, would frame everything we did together. I had a choice: To see them as troublemakers, losers and rejects — or to see them as young adults trying to make sense of life, just like I was.

Second, I couldn’t make this class a success on my own — the students had to be a part of putting things back in order. It was important that they be fully engaged. We first paid attention to the space. We collaborated on how we would clean up the classroom, figured out where we stood on supplies, and fixed up the tools. Throughout this process, we were not only taking a classroom inventory, we were assessing each other.

Third, we decided together what it was going to mean to be a member of the woodshop class. We could spend a semester with me exerting control and them resisting being controlled, or we could create something meaningful. Together, we had to determine our shared future. We spent some time talking about things such as:

·   What does it mean to be a part of this class?

·   What expectations do you have of me? And me of you?

·   How should we treat each other when problems crop up or things get testy?

·   What is it that we want to do here together?

And finally, I wanted them to quickly begin a creative project using wood. The act of creation gave them a sense of ownership and meaning.

By the end of the semester, we had created a “woodshop” where all of our heads, hearts and hands were honored and engaged.

Although I no longer teach in a high school classroom, the four lessons continue to be relevant. In large organizations where we work, they come into play again and again. Leaders need to become aware of who they “see” at work. They must develop a clear understanding of what it means to be a member of the enterprise. Engagement and collaboration forges a sense of ownership and excitement.

And that sets the stage for the magical act of creation.


We’ve been grappling with the fact that truth-telling is often seen as a radical act in our organizations and trying to figure out why that should be so. In our last post, we listed compelling and seductive reasons for NOT telling the truth. This week, we are listing benefits that come from telling the truth.

Top 20 Reasons for Telling the Truth

1.     It forces me to be honest with myself
2.     Establishes credibility and trust
3.     It shows people what I see and how I truly feel
4.     I don’t have to remember what stories/lies I told before
5.     Helps me confront harsh realities rather than fear or ignore them
6.     Sends a message of respect and caring
7.     Helps me create a world I can believe in
8.     Demonstrates taking accountability for my actions
9.     Honors reality
10.  Sets an example for others
11.  Creates opportunities for intimacy and true connection
12.  Bolsters self-confidence
13.  It honors the fact that you choose how you respond to circumstances
14.  Helps us discover ways to live together constructively
15.  Guides my actions to a life of integrity
16.  Defies social convention
17.  Liking myself is more important than whether you like me
18.  Is an expression of my freedom
19.  Creates consistency and alignment
20.  Makes relationships more meaningful

Why do you think it is so difficult to tell the truth? And what are your reasons for telling the truth?


Accountability, business literacy, Distributing organizational power

Football has long been a big part of my life. I played in high school, was a scholarship athlete at Miami University, and coached high school football in my first career as a public school teacher. So I was particularly interested in a recent NPR interview with New York Jets head coach Rex Ryan, who mentioned a guiding principle we believe has strong benefits for business leaders and managers.

In the interview, and in his new book Play Like You Mean It, Ryan boils down his foundational coaching strategy to one elegant sentence: “Everybody is in the same room, and there is accountability because you all know each others’ jobs.”
NY Jets Coach Rex Ryan

Everyone in the room, at the same time.

As defensive coach at the Baltimore Ravens, for instance, he didn’t meet with groups of defensive players depending on their roles or positions — the entire defense was in the room at the same time, each player learning to understand the roles of his teammates. Ryan carries on this philosophy as the Jets’ head coach.

“It may sound complicated [but] it’s not,” Ryan says. And his simple approach works. Since Ryan took over the struggling Jets in 2009, the team twice has been within one game of the Super Bowl.

He says his philosophy was influenced by seeing some of the mistakes made by his legendary father, Buddy Ryan, who worked as head coach for the Philadelphia Eagles and the Arizona Cardinals. “He was more strictly isolated on players,” whereas the younger Ryan’s goal is making developing and strengthening the entire organization.

Coach Ryan’s approach is one we long have used in our work — we also consider it foundational. It is another iteration of what we call business literacy. Our experience and others’ has shown that a key element to business success is helping everyone in the organization see and understand the big picture. This means setting up mindful processes and procedures that foster in-depth knowledge of how the business operates, and the environment in which it must thrive. It means everyone acknowledge and strengthen the interdependencies required for the success of the whole. When people are committed to serving each other, their customers and learning together, it not only enhances results, it helps create meaning and purpose at work.

In Rex Ryan’s world, players develop interdependent thinking and understanding through this “whole system” approach. Coaches supply team members with in-depth information, along with a framework and strategy for engagement. This is tested and refined while preparing for games. This environment creates collective wisdom, and the sum becomes greater than its parts.

Leaders would benefit from embracing this simple principle. Make it your personal mission to build a stronger team by distributing business information from top to bottom, side to side. Begin meeting regularly as a whole system/unit. Create a culture of transparency and interdependency. Foster collective wisdom.

It might not get you to the Super Bowl, but it will get you better results.


Written by Maren and Jamie Showkeir

Owners of henning-showkeir & associates, inc., and co-authors of Authentic Conversations: Moving from Manipulation to Truth and Commitment.