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"Straight-Line Leadership" by Dusan Djukich has had a profound impact on me since reading it late last year. In situations where I feel the pull to delay action, it's reminded me to push forward, be who I need to be, and do what I need to do. For Djukich, that’s what leadership is all about:
"Success in life and in business is actually simpler than it looks. Not easier, always, but simpler. It’s a matter of getting from A to B. A is where you are now, and B is your chosen objective. A leader’s job is to get to B. A leader demonstrates his commitment to get to B by his willingness to be 'who he needs to be' and do 'whatever it takes in the form of necessary required actions' to get to B."
In my life, straight-line leadership might look like waking up earlier to fit in a workout, or getting ahead of a tough conversation with an underperforming employee. It's those moments when what I know I should do isn't what I want to do.
When I was maybe four or five years old, I was known for casually replying "tomorrow" when my parents made requests like asking me to finish my dinner. I've since become more aware of my inner voice telling me tomorrow is just fine. Any time I'm about to put off action, I try to get real about what's making me pause. Oftentimes, it's discomfort.
"When you feel uncomfortable doing something, it means you have the opportunity to grow. Growth does not occur in the land of comfort. It all comes down to: 1) What comfort choices do I need to give up? 2) What growth choices do I need to take on?"
The irony is that when I push through, I always feel better. When I don't, I carry the weight of my inaction, knowing I'm not being who I want to be — moving away from, not toward, my desired future.
In the book "All I Want To Know Is Where I'm Going To Die So I'll Never Go There" by Peter Bevelin, Warren Buffet and Charlie Munger share how turning everything in reverse has aided them in decision-making and problem-solving. In doing so, they see situations through a new lens and uncover new ideas. The book's chapters are suitably broken into sections with titles suggesting the opposite of what they're about, e.g. Live Above Your Means or Believe You Know Everything About Everything.
I had fun taking this approach in exploring takeaways from "Straight-Line Leadership." It's interesting what happens when you invert these statements, it almost seems absurd not to consider them.
In this post, I inverted five tips from the book and share how I've seen them get in the way of being a straight-line leader.
"Buddha said you’ve got to take care of yourself before you take care of other people. That is why, in an airplane, you put the oxygen mask on yourself first before you put it on your kids. Selfishness is small-minded and greedy—but self-care is wise and benefits every life you touch. When you engage in extreme self-care, you are supporting your own well-being so that you can better contribute to others."
In the past, there have been moments when I've felt guilty making time for a workout, writing my newsletter, or taking a ride on my motorcycle because I know I have obligations at home. I appreciate Djukich's distinction between self-care and selfishness because I always find that prioritizing this time for myself makes me a happier, more productive contributor at home. When I let travel, holidays, or other commitments throw me off, I notice myself become irritable and lethargic.
That said, making this time has become difficult over the past few years. Life moments like buying a house and rescuing a puppy have tested my commitment to staying on track. I try my best not to put myself in a position where I have to choose between self-care and my obligations at home; however, I've learned this requires a willingness to be flexible with my schedule and do whatever it takes to make time for my habits.
"Our functional straight-line distinction is this: optimists are realists. Pessimists are unrealistic because of what they see and don’t see. Optimism is the practice of focusing on opportunities and possibilities rather than complaints and regrets. It’s obvious, therefore, why optimists are more effective than pessimists. It also turns out (and you can logically verify this) that optimists are healthier than pessimists, they’re financially more successful than pessimists, and they perform better in learning institutions than pessimists. Not only that, optimists have more fulfilling relationships than pessimists."
Djukich's definition of optimism is what I try to inspire among the Barrel team. Whether we're pitching new business or presenting creative to the client for the first time, we're constantly in situations that may or may not turn out as planned. When we face setbacks, taking a pessimistic view gets us nowhere.
Over the years, I've seen other agency folks publicly complaining about how they spent time on a proposal that didn't pan out or regretting choices they've made about their business. When I see this, I can't help but think about how much more valuable their energy would be identifying new opportunities and possibilities ahead.
Lately, I've enjoyed working with the team in rethinking how we approach proposals for key prospective clients. We haven't seen much success with creative spec work in the past year. It's been refreshing to see the team think optimistically about what we can be doing vs. getting stuck over-analyzing what didn't work.
I'll end with another related excerpt:
"Victims are fixated on solving the past. They nurture past hurts and memories. Owners focus on creating the future."
"You don’t have to be a disciplined person. There’s no such thing as a permanently, genetically disciplined person. You choose discipline or you don’t. Discipline is simply remembering what you intend to do and refusing to get sidetracked. Are you not doing something that you say you want to do? You are not doing it because you have not chosen to. Willpower has nothing to do with it. Willpower is not necessary. It’s all about choice."
I love the introduction of choice when thinking about how we act on our intentions. I've found peace in admitting I'm choosing not to take action on pursuits I say I want because if I wanted them, I would make them a priority. This was freeing after taking a step back from music years ago. Djukich takes it a bit further, describing the difference between won't vs. can't:
"There are some things you think you can’t do even if someone put a shotgun to your head. But you might want to look again. If someone offered you five million dollars to do what you are hesitating about, your answer might now be “Heck, yes!” Now you know that that one was a won’t as opposed to a can’t."
I've found the Can't vs. Won't mindset helpful in pursuing my goals and collaborating with others. I recently spent some time in LA and chose to work East Coast hours, so I started at 7 am. When a client requested a call requiring me to be online at 6 am, I told the team I couldn't be there. Upon second thought, I realized that wasn't true. I could be there but decided I wouldn't. I followed up with why I didn't think I was needed and asked if they agreed. This clarification can mean everything to a group working together toward a common goal.
"'Stress is basically a disconnection from the earth,' says the great creativity teacher Natalie Goldberg. 'It’s a forgetting of the breath. Stress is an ignorant state. It believes that everything is an emergency.'"
"Most people stress themselves out as a form (or a show) of really caring about getting a result. But it’s not caring; it’s just stressing out. Stressing out only makes one do worse. True caring makes one do better. That’s why it’s vital for a straight-line leader to know the difference. The two couldn’t be more different. Caring is relaxing, focusing, and calling on all the resources that you bring to bear when you pay full attention with peace of mind. No one performs better than when they are relaxed and focused."
It's interesting to think about stress through the lens of caring or showing one cares about a result. I've seen this most among employees who have taken on a new role or moved up in seniority. They take on new responsibilities and see everything as one big daunting task. Rather than breaking it down and tackling each step with poise, they treat everything as an emergency and make minimal progress. At the same time, they wear their stress as a badge of honor because, in their minds, they're working on so much. Unfortunately, these folks typically don't last long unless they improve how they prioritize and manage their time. I remember writing this letter after encountering an employee going through something similar.
I won't pretend like I don't get stressed. I do. But I've found freedom in noticing it quickly, slowing down, taking a deep breath, and getting my priorities straight. Often, I'm being unrealistic about what I can get done and trying to do too much at once.
"The position you operate from in life is what ultimately has you be 'who you are.' By 'who you are' I mean how you exist. How you live. How you function in life. The things you do and don’t do. The things you say. The things you don’t say. How you are experienced by others as well as yourself. I call this operating position your inner stance. … Some people can be very defensive about their stances because of how deeply they have confused the stances for who they are. They trap themselves in disempowering stances by identifying with the stances themselves. They think in terms of DNA and permanent personalities. Choosing to operate as a straight-line individual is choosing to drop your disempowering identity (self-concept) by shifting your inner stance."
Djukich’s “inner stance” reminded me of a powerful concept from the book, "The Three Laws of Performance" by Steve Zaffron and Dave Logan, called default future. It’s the idea that if we do nothing to alter our course, we will live into our default future, whether desirable or not. One way to alter your future is to change your inner stance.
"Our default future consists of our expectations, fears, hopes, and predictions, all of which are ultimately based on our experience in the past. Incidents from the past live on as prediction, giving us our default future."
Sometimes I think about the default future I might have lived into if I hadn’t been able to shift my inner stance toward fitness years ago. Growing up, I never saw myself as an athletic kid, let alone competing in powerlifting or strongman competitions. I looked around at my family and figured it wasn't in the cards. My inner stance shifted when I joined my local CrossFit gym’s barbell club. No one knew anything about me. My new friends treated me like someone who wanted to get stronger and cheered me on. I realized I had been operating from a disempowered inner stance and was holding myself back from progress.
More recently, I've been thinking about how I used to be resistant to the idea of owning a dog. After meeting Barrel CEO Peter's dog Sidney many years ago, I became more open to the idea, but I wasn't sold. Flash forward to last year, my wife Dana and I adopted a puppy and named him Gizmo. Sometimes, I wonder what life would be like if he hadn't come into our lives. We've loved having him around.
I could tell the same story about moving back to my hometown and many aspects of my life and career. It's empowering to recognize how much control I have over my future and that nothing ahead has been written.
I figured one of my favorite excerpts from "Straight-Line Leadership" was a fitting thought starter for this week:
"It’s been said that your life, when it’s over, will either be a warning or an example. So ask yourself, “Will my life be a warning to others? Or will it be a powerful example of what’s possible for a human being to do?”"
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