For over 30 years, we have been professional consultants, senior executives, and angel investors and we’d like to think we’ve seen it all. We’re frequently reminded how wrong we are, of course, as every year brings on a new experience of some kind that shows us that the world is changing faster than we can keep up. We were reflecting recently on the various words of wisdom that have affected our lives and careers. From the many that we have collected, here are ten thoughtful quotes that we believe still work in our lives today.
“We Become What We Think About”, Earl Nightingale
Recorded originally on vinyl in 1956, Earl Nightingale offered profound wisdom what he called The Strangest Secret, which has since sold well over 1 million copies. This Strangest Secret teaches us that above all else, we design our own lives through our attitudes, thoughts, and expectations. While we may not always get what we want out of life, we get what we expect in the long run.
“Power Comes and Goes”, Barbara Walters
Barbara Walters described the ebb and flow of power on a TV special while discussing the ups and downs of a Hollywood celebrity’s career. We have seen this play out many times in my own lives and careers. What we’ve learned is that life should be lived as a buyer and a seller, a leader and a follower, and in and out of power. Only through this blend of experience can we develop the maturity and wisdom to use power for good.
“Seek First to Understand”, Steven Covey
We first read the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People in 1989 and it forever changed our thinking about business and leadership. Seek first to understand teaches us that if you want to influence others, you must first be open to being influenced by them. We believe that seek first to understand is the single most important piece of wisdom for achieving positive human relationships and cooperatively solving problems.
“Maybe So, Maybe Not”, Ancient Taoist Proverb
One day, a farmer’s horse ran away. His neighbors expressed sympathy, “What terrible luck that you lost your horse!” The farmer replied, “Maybe so, maybe not.”
A few days later, the horse returned, leading several wild horses. The neighbors shouted, “Your horse has returned, and brought more with him. What great fortune!” The farmer replied, “Maybe so, maybe not.”
Later that week, the farmer’s son was trying to break one of the wild horses and got thrown to the ground, breaking his leg. The villagers cried, “Your son broke his leg, what a calamity!” The farmer replied, “Maybe so, maybe not.”
A few weeks later, soldiers from the national army marched through town, conscripting all the able-bodied young men for the army. They did not take the farmer’s son because of his broken leg. Friends shouted, “Your boy is spared, what tremendous luck!” To which the farmer replied, “Maybe so, maybe not.”
Robert Carlson includes this proverb in his book, Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff… and it’s all Small Stuff. Like many of us, I tend to think that bad luck is undeserved and good luck is earned. This story opened my eyes to the notion that my life is unfolding just as it should and things are not always as they first appear. The only real answer is, “maybe so, maybe not.”
“Every Organization is Perfectly Designed to Get the Results it Gets”, David Hanna
While consulting with Procter & Gamble in the late 1980s and early 1990s, we discovered David Hanna’s 1988 book, Designing Organizations for High Performance. We learned that not only are there explainable reasons for all organizational performance, but also that performance can be changed by intentionally redesigning the organization. If as the leader, I am unhappy with the current organization performance, it is my responsibility to redesign the organization’s characteristics to deliver different and better performance.
“When the Paradigm Shifts, Everyone Goes Back to Zero”, Joel Barker
A paradigm is the way each of us sees the world. Joel Barker teaches us that when one worldview replaces another, the playing field resets, and past successes guarantee nothing for the future. We have all seen this principle play out in our lifetimes.
Here is a small example of a paradigm shift, which occurred in a troubled snack food company in the mid-’90s.
The company had a dockworker that was the celebrated superstar loading tractor-trailers that delivered snacks to warehouses. He was both fast and excelled at optimizing available trailer space. Because the company was in financial trouble and needed to cut costs, we implemented a pallet-based strategy utilizing fork trucks. This change improved overall speed maintained load optimization and dramatically lowered labor costs per truckload. Sadly, our trailer loading superstar could not adapt to driving a fork truck and left the company soon after. The paradigm shifted and his particular skill was no longer valuable to the business.
When the paradigm shifts, rules change, skill requirements change and what worked before may no longer be successful. Success requires the flexibility to adapt to new environments.
“The First Step on the Leadership Path is Getting Back to Zero”, Larry Donnithorne
From Donnithorne’s excellent book, The West Point Way of Leadership, written in 1993, we learn that the prerequisite to great leadership is great followership. Getting back to zero means realizing all that we don’t know and opening ourselves to the possibility that there is still much to learn from the many others who can teach us. When you encounter someone who appears to be a truly great leader, check to see if he or she is also a great follower.
“Change is Good. You go First.”, Dilbert
Throughout our careers, we have been change agents and know firsthand that, as Jack Welch once said, “Change has no constituency.” Without a compelling reason and the essential elements in place, change is an elusive idea that escapes organizations when they most need it. There is a science and method for successful change management and not enough organizations understand how to implement change that sticks.
“Where We Have Problems, We Find a Lack of Accountability,”, James P McLaughlin, UPS
Back in the late 1970s at United Parcel Service, the company’s President, James McLaughlin, gave an annual management conference keynote in 1974, Our Operating Accountability as Managers, where he explained the elements of accountability and emphasized how important accountability is to a well-managed enterprise. In the talk, he offered five conditions that must be present to hold an individual accountable. The individual must 1) understand and accept the assignment, 2) have the tools, knowledge, and capability to do the job, 3) agree with the standards of acceptability, 4) be given full authority to complete the assignment, and 5) understand how accountability will be demonstrated.
At UPS, we learn that accountability flows two-ways; to require accountability, a manager must first earn the right by meeting the five conditions above.
“It Doesn’t Matter What Happens, it’s How You Take it”, Denis Waitley
Although we’ve seen many versions of this profound insight, this quote by Denis Waitley makes a perfect bookend to The Strangest Secret. While we cannot always control the world and the events affecting us, we do have control of our own response.
Looking back through our collection of ten quotes was fun and refreshing. While several were discovered more than 30 years ago, they have all impacted our lives in some way. Hopefully, you will also find them interesting and useful.