The annual Earthworm Award Proposal

I have long been an admirer of earthworms. Say What? The lowly earthworm, as it burrows underground, plays an essential ecological role. It’s activities throughout its 600 million years “in” earth have both enriched the soil and in some instances totally transformed it.

Most notably, they replenish the soil through their waste and open up channels for water and nutrients to disperse throughout the soil. Charles Darwin observed, “”of all animals, few have contributed so much to the development of the world, as we know it, as these lowly creatures.” Yet, there are no odes, songs or poems written for earthworms.

I propose an award and dare the first organization to create and promote it. The “Annual Earthworm” award would be given to a leader who has toiled incessantly to make the organization better. That person will not have sought recognition and is not necessarily a board member or a CEO but perhaps might be a staff member who has contributed in extraordinary ways.

There are far more “earthworms” than the flashy newsy leaders who usually walk away with the awards. That is what leadership should be about. Doing your best to serve by making the kinds of tough and important decisions that service requires. Next time you see an earthworm, take a photo and remember its importance. The song you write, An Ode to the Earthworm, could become the next big thing. You never know.

Defy authority — but take care

One of the most vexing of leadership issues is how anyone should appropriately defy authority. Throughout history we have read of those who did not (Abu Graib prison in the Iraqi War) and of the many whistleblowers who did. One instance on which I write in my book is that of an impaired executive and the questions from board members to staff – “have you noticed any problems with Mike?” The Board was growing more aware of his addiction but wanted confirmation from those “on the ground.”

The staff denied problems dooming the organization to face the truth later on in dramatic headlining fashion. What can be done to properly defy authority whether that be a mere disagreement with a leader or a more serious problem.

First and foremost, employ the human gift of perspective by recognizing that your allegiance to a higher calling than comfort in your job. You must recognize and support the mission whether it be personal or professional.

Steps include, (1) analyzing the problem or the question as was put to the staff with Mike and be sure it is well understood; (2) if discomfort continues, confide in a trusted fellow or colleague to see if the discomfort lies in others as well as you; (3) Discuss options on solving the problem that might not have been considered and (4) if the concern wears on, go to someone either a boss or another leader and have a conversation. The last step is one that should not be taken lightly. Depending upon the issue, you may have to leave the organization or situation as your values need to line up with your core being or purpose.

A refreshing drink of civility

With the resolution of the most raucous presidential election in my memory, I sought out what appeared to be a civil voice. I don’t know much about him but have always admired David Gergen. He is a CNN commentator and in my opinion is a voice of reason amidst other more partisan, bickering and angry voices. On Wednesday after the election, I began reading “Eyewitness to Power,” his book about service as a speech writer in the Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Clinton administrations. What I read is a treasure trove of tips on leadership, communicating, crisis management and public speaking and how all those come together to spell “effective or ineffective” leadership.

Here is what I took away.

Nixon, with a brilliant mind, could not rise above a desire to punish his enemies, dooming his presidency with his shame filled resignation.

While many political figures such as J. Edgar Hoover got by with similar misdeeds, Nixon was not prepared for a changing world when transparency was becoming the gold standard. His sin? Not even so much that he did wrong but that he lied about it.

Ford took over and is in Gergen’s view, the most underestimated of presidents. His pardon of Nixon was not in and of itself wrongheaded but how it was done doomed his administration to failure. He is described by Gergen as an uncommonly fine man with sturdy Midwestern values. My favorite story is of observing him fixing breakfast for his wife Betty during a staff meeting. That act alone cemented his solid character with his staff.

Reagan is of course referred to as the great communicator. He possessed all the elements of a high EQ (Emotional Quotient) as opposed to a sky high IQ, which is often too highly rated in leadership. Knowing how to relate to people, read situations, and exercise discipline in order to perform at your best are all key in getting things done.

The media, way back when, and today

There were so many “moments” in touring the National Civil Right Museum in Memphis, Tennessee founded on the site where Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered. The word “inspirational” is inadequate to describe those moments. They made you live and remember what is almost too painful – when people, actual people, were enslaved and bought and sold. One moment stands out, however.

It was the news coverage of the March on Washington led by Martin Luther King in which an estimated 200,000 people stood before King and heard the “I Have a Dream Speech,” perhaps the most extraordinary speech of all time.

The headline in the Washington Post screamed out “Mammoth Rally of 200,000 Jams Mall in Solemn, Orderly Plea for Equality.” In a sidebar explanation of the event, however, it was noted that the media failed utterly with this observation: “But the march did not transform America. The media missed the opportunity to generate a meaningful national conversation about racial discrimination. The story to them was how the people marched rather than “why” they marched.

Fast forwarding to 2016, media is once again questioning its coverage of the Trump phenomenon and those who followed him. We can only observe that the important pillar of American democracy has for quite some time been in crisis. Traditional print editions are going down; great veteran reporters being laid off. On-line versions find themselves at a loss on how to fund the important journalism that is foundational to our way of life and broadcast news is more about ratings than truth. Media is populated with people who just like the rest of us have their gifts and flaws. By definition, how they must stand above the fray in order to provide the coverage of what is happening down below. One reporter said to me in the midst of my reputation debacle: “You know, we in as journalists are taught to question everything.” Quite to the contrary, they don’t question nearly enough … even about their own motivations.

No disrespect.. but

I actually kind of liked it when Bob Dylan did not acknowledge receiving the Nobel Peace Prize for Literature. I do not hold it against him that he finally made contact with the Committee though I note that he has announced that he will not be attending the ceremony. Another writer expressed discomfort in accepting the award yet did so likely out of respect for the Awarding Committee. That author was William Faulkner and here is a brief snippet of his acceptance speech in which he expresses a desire to stand up for those toiling as writers and artists, “…using this moment as a pinnacle from which I might be listened to by the young men and women already dedicated to the same anguish and travail, among whom is already that one who will someday stand where I am standing.”

I suppose I projected onto Dylan my own thoughts about awards and what they mean. I was the recipient of many awards in the course of my 25 year career as a CEO. As a part of my therapy upon losing my job, I re-evaluated each of them. I concluded that most were given to me because I had a wonderful staff who nominated me or because I was the “tip” of the iceberg of my world thus more visible and almost symbolic of those who worked hard in the shadows. I recall taking a particularly beautiful crystal eagle mounted on a wooden base to a trophy shop and asking that my brass plate be removed so that I could re-gift it as a display for another’s new office. The reaction of the shopkeeper was priceless – he stared at me as if I had two heads.

I believe that awards are wonderful if taken in a healthy context that others are likely as deserving if not more. The other issue I have with awards is that they give you a really creepy feeling that you have something to live up to in the eyes of others. That can make you do things that go against your better judgment and make decisions that feed ambition and not truth. Just as poets since time began have observed, a true thing is a thing unto itself. A bird sings because it is a bird not because someone gives it an award. Being myself and living within my own skin – warts and all – was a major part of my recovery. We are all artists if we hold to our core being and achieve because it is the right thing to do and be.

The Butterfly Effect

I had always been aware of what is commonly known as the “butterfly” effect but it was not until I watched a video of author Andy Andrews explaining it, complete with a story and book of that title, that I found the joy of its premise. The theory that a butterfly fluttering its wings in Brazil can cause “weather” in Texas, while laughed at when first advanced, has, in fact, been proven scientifically. So, what does the butterfly effect mean for leadership?

When I teach leadership classes, the learning lessons often chronicle the stories of the deservedly heroic and celebrated figures such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mother Theresa. What I quickly point out, however, is that none of us in the classroom that day is likely to make a speech before 200,000 people at the Lincoln Memorial much less one that inspires generations to greatness. BUT, what we do each and every day is make a series of decisions that affect lives.

Those decisions – from what to wear to work — to a momentous decision that will affect many lives either positively or negatively, sometimes both. We owe it to ourselves and to others to learn how to make good and ethical decisions. We do so with the knowledge that we are not perfect and that so long as you live, you will have a learning lesson every day. The great news is that in spite of all the negativity in our world today, there is a common decency and a desire to learn those skills and to vow to always do better every day. Take a look at Andy Andrews’ explanation ( He is an inspirational figure – having lost both parents at age 19 and finding himself homeless and in despair for a time. He determined to reach the biographies of great leaders and has emerged as one himself through his books and unforgettable stage presence.

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