Films, and islands, and drones! Oh my! Leading amid chaos

Over the last week protests and riots have erupted in a swath across the globe from Tunisia to China. The two flash points have been the display of an Arabic version of a trailer for the movie Innocence of Muslims and the sale of the disputed Senkaku islands in the East China Sea.

Senkaku Islands

The Innocence of Muslims is an overdubbed, poorly crafted film which sadly portrays the prophet Muhammad as a fool, a fake, and a womanizer. While individuals in the western world may find the film repugnant, they also understand the value of freedom of expression. Those of us raised in a culture where freedom of expression is appreciated can easily shrug off such poor attempts at inciting strong religious emotions.

However, in cultures where the Muslim faith is regarded more seriously—and freedom of expression is not necessarily so highly valued, at least on religious topics—it may be felt that protests are in order. Unfortunately, for individuals waiting for an excuse to protest and riot, faster than a speeding drone, they’ll be on the bandwagon.

The Senkaku islands (Diaoyudao in Chinese) have been in dispute between China and Japan ever since oil was discovered in 1968 under their surrounding seas. The government of Japan recently purchased the islands from a private Japanese family and this action has inflamed both the Chinese government and citizens. Two factors are likely in play, the desire for the oil resources and a continued resentment against the Japanese for the atrocities committed in China between 1931 and 1945.

So let’s bring this back into the world of leadership we live in every day. I find an analog for these global events to be situations where the entire team or organization is working from a morale deficit. These may be situations where massive layoffs or a traumatic incident has taken place. In such cases there are three things you can do—allow a period of grief and bring closure to the past, motivate the team toward the common goal, and keep the focus moving forward.

As humans we find it comforting to acknowledge our grief and to apply ritual to bring closure to unfortunate events. All cultures I know of, including primitive cultures, perform a ritual for the loss of a tribe or family member. And so it should be for your situation. Acknowledge the loss, discuss it and decide what you need to do to put it to rest. Then move on.

Focusing on a common goal can work to motivate the team as well as bring the focus away from internal pain. The parallel to this is the way savvy and despotic leaders of countries have used the ploy of attacking an outside enemy in order to deflect the spotlight. Working toward the common goal is a motivational tool all leaders should utilize.

Lastly, the universe is a forward-moving energy which never slows or ceases. Feel that energy and use your creativity to make it palpable to all team members. Work to get them on the bus and for the bus to move relentlessly forward.

There is no time to wallow in the past. Moments may arise where we as leaders must encourage a team member or two to make a decision—remain stuck in the past or move forward with the team. In my view it’s an easy decision. Let’s hop on the bus and get moving!


  • Acknowledge the loss or trauma and bring it to closure
  • Focus on the common goal
  • Keep the energy and focus on moving forward

Keywords: leadership, trauma, grief, protests, riots, Innocence of Muslims, Senkaku islands, Diaoyudao islands, ritual, energy

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SpaceX Checks its Ego at the Door

As I write this the SpaceX (Space Exploration Technologies) Falcon 9 rocket has blasted into space, carrying the Dragon spacecraft toward the International Space Station (ISS) with a load of cargo. This milestone marks a new era in private as opposed to government space flight. While a significant portion of the program funding comes from NASA and therefore could be considered government funded, two important points would be missed if we apply such a broad brush.

Falcon 9 Launch May 22, 2012

As a leader our ego sometimes gets the better of us. We begin to believe that we and our team can deliver new products or services without the help of others. Such an attitude frequently ends in failure and a veritable crawl back to those who offered help in the first place.

The collaboration of SpaceX with NASA has been shown to provide tangible benefits in terms of development time and cost. While SpaceX has taken a fresh approach to rocket and spacecraft design they have hired and collaborated with NASA engineers to design and produce highly reliable and much lower cost equipment. This collaboration has created the best of two worlds—the fresh, pristine design team and the legacy team learning from the vast knowledge of successful and failed missions.

In order to make this collaboration work the SpaceX management and design team had to set their ego aside and embrace the NASA voice of wisdom. My work with clients has revealed many a time when individuals feel they can go it alone to achieve their goals. Sometimes this is successful, sometimes not. I find it helpful to strike a balance between receiving and utilizing sage advice versus allowing your team to become bogged down with too many opinions.

I believe the second lesson here is one of minimizing bureaucracy. In general, as organizations mature they continually learn from mistakes and implement a multiplicity of checks and balances. At some point the organization becomes overly cautious and new, more nimble competitors swoop in to take market share with clever innovations.

As you observe this taking place in your organization you have a couple of options: either allow the bureaucracy to slowly build and then destroy it and build anew or continually hack away at the bureaucracy and agree to take on a measured amount of risk.

So when you find yourself turning down offers of help ask yourself if your ego is popping up. Continually assess your processes to ensure you have not become too bureaucratic. After all, this is rocket science and you want to do the best you can.


  • Allow your ego to step aside and ask yourself where the help of others might improve your team’s performance
  • Take a fresh look, from the ground up, what business processes are absolutely necessary for your team to meet its goals

Keywords: leadership, ego, bureaucracy

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Are You Leading From Fear or Openness?

Over the past several months I have witnessed a fascinating diversity of leadership with respect to the polarities of fear and openness. One view of our world is that polarities exist for everything—black vs. white, hot vs. cold, up vs. down, and of course, fear vs. openness.

You can take your leadership to the next level by learning to harness the power of fear and openness as well as respecting the dark side of these emotions.

Man Screaming

Let’s look at fear first. Fear can be debilitating as well as energizing. Imagine you are fearful of changes in your team. You might be afraid of team members leaving, becoming burned out, or quarreling over frivolous issues. Any of these have the potential to decimate your team’s ability to meet it’s goals.

On the other hand, as the title of Andy Grove’s book states, only the paranoid survive. We all can do well with a healthy amount of fear. For example, fear of getting run over by a car keeps us alive as we walk across the street. Fear of our competitors gives us a good incentive to develop sound strategies and superior products. The trick is to use fear wisely and keep it in balance.

The other side of this polarity, openness, works in a similar fashion. You may be so open to new ideas and processes that you never get your current tasks completed. However, if you are too low in openness, you may stifle new processes, products, or strategies. In addition, a high level of openness is important in the early stages of a project but can be devastating in the final stages when you need to be converging toward a final solution and completion of tasks.

Now let’s throw the idea of change into this discussion, both internal and external change.

Change outside of your group, external change, is out of your control and it is healthy to fear it to the extent that you prepare for possible changes. If you fear external changes too much you may become impaired and end up freezing. Embrace the gamut of possible changes and develop strategies to deal with them.

Any changes you make internal to your team may be alarming as well. Team members may need to adjust to new roles and work assignments. Conflicts may arise during the adjustment period and some individuals may end up in roles they are not well suited for. However, remaining open to changes within your team can bring you to higher achievements and greater success.

As with all reflective work, awareness is the first step. Observe your emotions so that you are aware when fear emerges. Notice how fear can enhance your business strategies. Ask yourself how open you are when team members bring you innovative ideas. The ideas may also bring you fear. If so, feel the fear, juxtapose it with the openness, and explore the interplay of these two polarities.


  • Using fear wisely and precisely for positive gain can help you become more effective
  • Too much fear can debilitate you as a leader
  • A great degree of openness can help you embrace new ideas
  • Too much openness can delay or prevent completion of projects

Keywords: leadership, openness, fear, change


  • Kaiser, R. B., & Kaplan, R. B. (2006). The deeper work of executive development: Outgrowing sensitivities. The Academy of Management Learning & Education, 5(4), 463-483.
  • Krause, D. E. (2004). Influence-based leadership as a determinant of the inclination to innovate and of innovation-related behaviors: An empirical investigation. The Leadership Quarterly, 15(1), 79-102.
  • LePine, J. A., Colquitt, J. A., & Erez, A. (2000). Adaptability to changing task contexts: Effects of general cognitive ability, conscientiousness, and openness to experience. Personnel Psychology, 53(3), 563-593.
  • Suárez, J. G. (1993). Managing fear in the workplace (TQLO Publication No. 93-01). Department of the Navy TQL Office.
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