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Has creative writing sparked an interest in you that you can no longer ignore? Are you attracted to the art of transforming an idea into a vibrant, coherent, imaginative stream of well-chosen words? Do you have the motivation to grow and to learn, the drive to push yourself to improve each day, and the mettle to take a shot at success when the risk of rejection might be lurking on the other side? If you can answer Yes to the foregoing, then the challenge and rewards of creative writing await you.

The below suggestions might be worthwhile as you begin charting your course:

• Capture your ideas. Keep a notepad handy to write down your observations. Worthwhile ideas can present themselves at any given moment. You may find that fresh material comes to you in the dead of night, or early morning, or perhaps as you’re driving or riding as a passenger. Inspiration can’t always be predicted or manipulated, so stay ready.

• Paint pictures with words. Instead of writing about a character involved in a motorcycle accident, describe the smell of the slick, wet pavement, the length and violence of the skid, the panic of the character as he/she realizes that control has been lost and some degree of unpleasantness now awaits. Don’t just tell, show. There’s a potential reader on the other end of your creation, so provide enough sustenance to keep that reader involved and turning the pages.

• Unleash your imagination. Your characters can become whomever or whatever you so desire. The scenes are yours to devise, the plot yours to construct. The story develops from an idea into a short story or novel based upon the power of your own imagination. You can make your main character larger than life, strong and determined, heroic yet flawed. It’s your choice. And don’t be afraid to take risks. Since it’s your story, your creation, tell it like you want it.

• Write every day. Writing is an acquired skill, and thus should be diligently practiced. The skill development, discipline, and dedication necessary to become an effective writer require continuous practice. It’s not always easy, but your writing should improve over time if you write, write, and keep writing.

Learn from others. Your writing style should be your own. But you can learn from reading the works of other writers. Read an array of material, from poetry to novels to blogs to journals of opinion. It’s okay to borrow from others, but you’ll need to develop a comfort with your own voice and words.

• Have fun. Make your characters come alive. Discover the unanticipated twists and turns that the writing process often takes once you have begun. And by all means enjoy yourself. It will reflect in your writing.

So, find your voice. Learn and practice your craft. Read, write, and write some more. You’ll be pleased when you find the high satisfaction that creative writing offers.

Good luck and good writing!

football

There is an interesting movement afoot originating from Northwestern University’s football team and its efforts to unionize, which a Chicago NLRB ruling has now supported. The issue of players’ receiving pay is apparently not primary to such other concerns as guaranteed scholarships and post-eligibility health costs for football-related injuries. The NCAA has made its position clear that it does not consider college football players to be employees. And undoubtedly Northwestern will appeal the decision. The business of college football is big and complicated, and growing bigger and more complicated every day.

Nonetheless, the landscape of college athletics—and especially college football—appears headed toward a transformation. Forbes reported that the Top 25 preseason college football teams for the 2011-2012 season had revenues of $1.24 billion and expenses of $562 million. High-end coaches’ salaries have risen over the past 15 years from $1 million to $7 million annually. Coordinators salaries have now reached the equivalent of mid-level CEOs. There are specific rules regarding the changing of schools for athletes; generally no such rules exist for coaches except in regard to contractual buyouts.

College football is a money-driven business with huge television deals, lucrative merchandise sales, post-season incentives, and on-campus facilities improvements in what is essentially a race for the biggest, most glamorous, most influential digs to assist in recruitment. Football is the unmistakable driver, with basketball a distant second, in providing the funds necessary to support it and the other intercollegiate sports, both men’s and women’s. And it is football that brings the droves of fans into the stadiums after making the requisite contributions and buying the tickets to see their beloved teams in action.

College football is not simply an extracurricular activity, it is a business that is run as a business. It generates billions and has the incessant pressure to win and grow and extend its brand. Coaches (CEOs) must succeed quickly or be banished. Fan bases (customers) are vocal and demanding. Other schools (competitors) are carefully watched for even the slightest evidence of advantage and/or innovation. Add to this the potentially shrinking base of players as parents begin to nudge their sons away from football toward sports with less likelihood for concussion injuries, and the pressure intensifies all the more.

When it comes to the players, I haven’t come to view them as exploited. They are receiving an education in exchange for their services. To be sure, they invest huge amounts of time and effort in their sport, and very few ever make it to the NFL. From what I can gather, however, most are generally satisfied. That’s not to say it couldn’t be made better. I’m in favor of their being paid a stipend that would give them enough money to dine out or attend a movie or concert. Nothing extravagant, say $500 per month for football players, less for other sports. Pay for it out of merchandise sales and endorsement deals. And make it consistent across all schools so that bidding contests for recruits can (ostensibly) be avoided. More fundamental fairness toward the players would be a good thing.

There will still be cheaters; alas, there will always be the cheaters. And when the cheaters win big, there will also be the emulators. What to do with the cheaters? Kick them out of any conference or national championship opportunities for, say, ten years. And fine them 10% of their revenues for the same amount of time. They can pay the penalty or drop football and start cheating at lacrosse.

If the big bucks finally drive the fairness and integrity out of college football, then the inevitable transformation will change the game in a dramatic way. Unions can then do for college football what they’ve done for Detroit. And who knows, the Fighting Irish might one day be outsourced to Dublin or Bangalore or some such. It will be a different game, if indeed there is any game at all. Who’s to say the NFL wouldn’t then create its own professional minor-league system, akin to the baseball model.

Nothing personal, mind you.

It’s just business.

Who is the band member who is also the most affecting, authoritative lead guitarist of all time? Who has the most memorable opening guitar riffs that cause an instantaneous recognition of a song? Who can mesmerize a crowd with his playing and stage presence (perhaps together with an off-stage persona to match)?

In short, who is the best, most recognizable, most powerful “guitar engine” that propelled his band and helped drive it to greatness?

In an informal poll of family and friends, there were a number of strong candidates advanced. Eddie Van Halen, Dave Matthews, Lindsay Buckingham, Jimmy Page, Pete Townshend, Duane Allman, Mark Knopfler, Eric Clapton, and Carlos Santana were all band guitarists of great skill and notoriety. All would certainly fulfill the “engine” criterion. And without a doubt all could bring a swooning concert crowd to its feet.

As good as they all are, they’re not the best. Not by a long shot, folks.

The best all-time band guitarist is none other than Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones. Yep, the ole English pirate himself.

But wasn’t Keith on the Ark with Noah, you ask?

No, but part of my reasoning behind Keith’s selection is that he has been a major part of a long and distinguished body of work (along, of course, with Mick and the others). They’ve lasted so long because they’ve continued to connect with listeners and audiences after all these fifty years. And there are all the great songs that have become so ingrained in our culture. That’s the point. You wouldn’t expect the greatest band guitarist to come from, say, Whitesnake, would you? (Sorry, that was a diss, I know. My bad. Throw ‘em a bone, er rat . . . sorry again.)

Think of Keith’s opening licks from Start Me Up, Brown Sugar, Honky Tonk Women, Midnight Rambler, Jumpin’ Jack Flash, and the immortal Satisfaction, which in 2004 Rolling Stones magazine placed second on its list of The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. While Keith isn’t the greatest guitarist ever, he is the musician who powered one of the greatest bands ever. Still does, as a matter of fact. Throw him a bone.

All-time band, all-time songs, all-time guitarist. That’s Keith Richards.

There, you have my choice.

Who is yours?

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Last Thursday, February 27, 2014, I had an author interview on The Kevin Zimmerman Show on the Authors First Radio Network.

A recording of the interview can be heard at this link http://www.artistfirst.com/Zimmerman.htm.

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Kevin Zimmerman

Kevin and I talked about my novels Dare Not Blink and Shall Never See So Much, and we also spoke of the splendid men and women in our U.S. Armed Forces. Kevin’s listening audience is heavily represented by military personnel, and it was a special honor to be able to tell our service members how much I appreciate what they are doing. It’s obvious that the members of the military hold a special place in Kevin’s heart, as they do mine, and it was worthwhile to be able to tell them so.

Kevin is not only an excellent interviewer and host, he is also a retired soldier and American hero in his own right. He is a two-time recipient of the Soldier’s Medal, the highest award given by Congress for an act of bravery while our nation is not in declared war. Recently, his book A Time For Everything; The Kevin Zimmerman Story, Second edition became a permanent part of American history by being accepted into the library and archives of the Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of African-American History and Culture. In June 2012, the book became a permanent part of U.S. military history by being accepted into the archives of the U.S. Army Medical Department Museum.

Not only am I pleased to have been a guest on Kevin’s show, but I’m especially grateful that I can now claim him as a friend.

My thanks also to friend and fellow author Doug Dahlgren, whose The Son series has been well received, for connecting Kevin and myself.

 

Winter_Weather.JPEG-0e702Those of us who reside in greater Atlanta realize that for all the many great things that go with living in our fair city, there’s also a downside. The traffic ranges from nasty to really, really nasty. Atlanta’s a major drug hub for the East Coast, with all the dark, bad stuff that accompanies such activity. The public school system is hardly a national treasure. And the general perception of the city’s overall poor management certainly wasn’t improved by the Braves recent decision to leave downtown and relocate to neighboring Cobb County.

To be fair, Atlanta’s certainly not alone in those areas of dysfunctionality. There are American cities that are bankrupt, downtrodden, and barely registering a pulse, but no, Atlanta is not one of them. Thankfully.

However, what does separate Atlanta from most major cities is its Achilles heel—a snowfall and the icing of its streets. Atlanta can’t do snow. It just can’t. It becomes the Southern equivalent of an Obamacare rollout, albeit colder. A snowfall in Atlanta not only provides Saturday Night Live with enough material for a skit of some length, it gives CNN something other than Justin Bieber to cover with near- uninterrupted footage.

It also paralyzes a large, important city, inconveniences or even endangers many of its commuting residents and visitors, and chokes off a vibrant economic engine, however briefly. It exposes once again how the lessons drawn from past storms seem not to make their way into thoughtfully planned, smoothly coordinated, pre-emptive and continuous action. City and state elected officials are left once again to stand in glaring lights at a podium and apologize, quibble, deflect, defer, or dissemble after the fact, with a promise to do better.

It’s a rather pathetic sight.

We discovered once again, though, that Atlanta is a generous city. Many hotels, restaurants, and retail businesses opened their doors to stranded and cold fellow citizens and gave them a warm resting place. Motorists shared food, water, diapers, and other essentials with one another while stuck for hours in unmoving traffic. There was even the rascal who stole a wrecker and then proceeded to steal abandoned cars alongside the roadways. We have all sorts.

So, tell me which is worse: Executing a professional, well-honed plan of pre-emptive school closings, street sandings, and overall area traffic management, to include the re-routing of truck traffic away from the city, with clear leadership and communication to the public, and then have the storm bypass the city? And come away looking foolish? Or, have a repeat of last week and displace Justin Bieber on CNN? And come away looking foolish?

Duh?

Right, but I’ll bet I can guess what will happen next time.

innovation

What differentiates companies like Apple, Microsoft, and Amazon from their competitors? What enables these companies to introduce new products and services on a continuous basis? What do they have that others seem to lack?

Quite simply, they have a thoughtful innovation strategy that drives a well-honed process for creating and then launching new products and services to their mix.

Businesses can grow in three ways. They can, 1) add more customers; or 2) charge more for the same products or services; or 3) add more products or services to generate additional revenue streams. If any of the above methods is done singularly, business growth is linear. If all of the above are done collectively, business growth is exponential.

A business without an innovation strategy is a business that will be forced to become reactive, as if it’s always a page behind, a step slower, sliding further and further to the rear. A company with a strong culture of innovation and a thoughtful strategy to drive the entire process will often command a leadership position in its market niche. Consider the following advantages:

1. Innovation provides competitive-advantage protection. Innovative companies who are habitually introducing new offerings into the marketplace are keeping their competitors off balance and scrambling.

2. Innovation has the same or better Fortune 500 success rate as acquisitions. Innovate or acquire? Done properly, innovation has repeatedly been shown to be successful and cost effective.

3. Innovation pays for itself. Greater market share can be attained by selling new additions to existing customers and discovering new customers with this expanded range of offerings.

4. Innovation helps ensure resource alignment. The innovation strategy provides direction so that process requirements are understood, manufacturing schedules are developed, and marketing tools are created to support new launches.

5. Innovation determines risk posture and portfolio mix. Higher risk and lower risk innovations are blended with the existing portfolio to develop sales and profit projections and marketing plans.

6. Innovation clarifies the scope and boundaries. Product placement is understood such that cannibalization and duplication are managed rationally and effectively.

7. Innovation promotes broader-based understanding, agreement, and buy-in. The various teams are guided by the strategy so that the organization as a whole moves in unison.

8. Innovation can increase shareholder, customer, and employee satisfaction. Increases in sales, profits, and market share are always welcomed. Employees participating in a dynamic, results-driven innovation process can find it rewarding and exhilarating.

So, is an innovation strategy worth the time and effort? Of course it is. Companies don’t have to be global giants to have an effective innovation strategy. Indeed, any company with the commitment, discipline, and foresight to do the hard work, to make the proper resources available, and to look past the short term can develop a strategy for successful innovation and business growth. The potential rewards can more than justify the costs.

 

pantsonfire

I frequently speak to groups on such topics as leadership and business ethics, and if there is a common thread connecting effective leadership and ethical behavior, it lies in the element of trustworthiness. To be sure, a large part of gaining (and then keeping) the trust of others is formed over time by a leader’s reliable, habitual truthfulness. Good leaders don’t lie. Great leaders rarely even fudge the truth. And as a result, the truly great leaders are far more often also the most ethical.

Disturbingly, it seems now that the prevailing pattern among many of our highest-profile people in politics, sports, and journalism, among others of cultural influence, is reliable, habitual untruthfulness. How did we get to this point? And what impact will it have on our young adults and children? What are the consequences of constantly exposing young people to the shallowness and rank dishonesty of our presidents and congressmen and women, our steroid-inflated sports heroes, and a shadowy media that now often chooses to report based largely upon its own agenda? Will they care about societal norms and personal integrity? Or will they seek to emulate the powerful? The famous? The cool?

This can’t be healthy. I often wonder what went with our high standards. How could our society have set the bar so low that now there seems little outrage or surprise when some self-important official tells a whopper with a perfectly straight face, and everybody knows it?

So many people lie with impunity nowadays, sometimes under oath and on matters ranging from national security to healthcare to economic news, that the American populace has grown continuously more skeptical and cynical. At some point it won’t be easy to govern an otherwise rational people who have come to believe very little of what they hear or don’t see for themselves, as if a tipping point has been reached. This isn’t North Korea. Those poor people have no vote to change their government; they have no choice about reinforcing standards for those who govern; they have no arms with which to protect themselves against tyranny. Americans have all three.

I’m not so naïve as to think that lying is some new Digital Age phenomenon. And I realize that good people sometimes fabricate or distort to save their own hides. St. Peter denied Jesus thrice with his lies, but he recovered nicely and went on to have a positive influence, I’d say. We are all fallible people, of course. And most of us feel remorse when we lie to or deceive others, or in some way act dishonorably.

But some of us don’t. Some among us would rather climb a tree and tell a lie than stand on the ground and tell the truth. And the longer we tolerate such people and their behavior, the more we become complicit in allowing our institutions and systems to become so compromised that they eventually rot and collapse. If moral bankruptcy is our destiny, then we as free citizens have only ourselves to blame. Not Washington. Not Hollywood. Not Wall Street.

It’s time for Main Street to awaken. What does that mean, you ask? Throwing the bums out? Term limits? Jail terms for perjury? Electing courageous leaders with integrity, not slick con artists or amateurs? Ethics rules with teeth? Stiff penalties for ethics violations? Stiff penalties for those who fail to enforce stiff penalties for ethics violations? Running dishonest execs out of business?

Yes.

Let’s get busy, Main Street.

 

Creativity is essential in remaining relevant in a business world now characterized by fast pace and rapid change. It’s needed to stay ahead of competition that has become more global and enterprising. It’s needed not only to solve problems, but to see ahead clearly enough to identify opportunities that others may yet be missing.

Truly innovative leaders have the ability to see connections across data, ideas, concepts, and past experience. They can then see the patterns and project forward, developing even better ideas and solutions.

Steve Jobs once said, “Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things.”

Innovative leaders question conventional thinking and constantly develop different (and sometimes even radical) ideas about how something can be done better. They do more than merely look straight ahead for the obvious, and instead look at all angles. By always probing and questioning, they develop other mental traits such as observing, sorting, and recognizing patterns. They experiment, they are curious, and they have a love for learning. By their example, they very often establish a culture of learning in their own organizations which can also serve as a creativity-multiplier.

Creative leaders do have some innate ability to understand and solve problems. Many have a strong imagination and a healthy sense of self that often afford s them a higher tolerance for risk-taking and a lower fear of failure. Some are non-conformists and unconventional, requiring less social approval or less rigidity in organizational structure.

So, can leadership creativity be developed and nurtured? I believe so, yes. Consider the following suggestions:

• Generate lots of ideas. Look not only for the commonplace, but for the truly innovative, game-changing, and transformational. Originality is the key here.

• Experiment with the good ideas. Always look to jump from good to great. Don’t be dissuaded by the fear of failure. Thomas Edison always viewed failure as a step closer to ultimate success.

• Be a passionate advocate of creativity and originality. Never remain satisfied with the status quo. Become an organization of learners and creative problem solvers.

• Protect the truly creative. Some individuals who have astonishing creative gifts are often viewed as geeks or social outcasts, perhaps worse. Make sure their contributions are recognized and shared, and that their value to the team is understood and appreciated.

• Inspire others. Share the wins on how creative approaches set the competition back on its heels. Dissect the failures and disseminate the lessons learned. Distribute the credit liberally and unselfishly.

Creative leaders help transform stodgy companies into organizations that are invigorated, competitive, and sustainable. These companies are built to last not only by the skillful, innovative leader, but also by the cumulative creative energies of the entire organization.

This is the last in the series on 12 Leadership Traits. Find the other posts in the Business – Leadership category. Feel free to leave any comments.

“Good judgment comes from experience, and a lot of that comes from bad judgment.” – Will Rogers

Judgment is the ability to think about things clearly, logically, and calmly, and to weigh facts, assumptions, and consequences (both the intended and, to a reasonable extent, the unintended) in deciding upon potential courses of action. Judgment does indeed come from experience, and is informed by one’s ethics. Having a good sense of judgment is a prerequisite for becoming an effective leader.

Business leaders today operate in environments where there are many unknowns, and where ambiguity is prevalent. Leaders must therefore be able to confront complex challenges and quickly cut to the most important considerations. The leader must see issues from multiple perspectives, evaluate the quality of information they possess, seek additional counsel as necessary, and make reasoned judgments about how (or how not) to proceed.

Even when required to act promptly, leaders should take the time necessary to consider the alternatives. The effective leader uses sound judgment to keep the entire chessboard in mind, even when focusing on an individual piece. When the time comes to make a decision, then make a decision! A good decision made promptly is far better than an even stronger decision made too late.

How can judgment be developed? While experience plays a large role in the development of judgment, as noted above, you might also consider the following:

• Develop a logical and orderly thought process by practicing objective estimates of the situation. This can be done as a matter of course on a daily basis, or it could be done through more formal training where simulation exercises are performed and then discussed.

• Don’t give in to impulse. Trusting one’s instincts is important, to be sure, but certainly not as an alternative to a more orderly, deliberate, and informed approach to decision-making. Leading with the heart is generally better left for the lyrics of a country-music song.

• Practice viewing a situation from multiple perspectives, identifying and framing the key issues, as well attempting to anticipate the intended and unintended consequences. Decisions often have impacts far and wide, and it’s worthwhile to attempt an assessment of all those ripples.

• Consider the effects of your decisions on all the stakeholders. Are employees impacted? Customers? Stockholders? Competitors? It’s worthwhile to assess the ripples here, as well.

• Appreciate the value of mentorship and learn from the experience of others. Mentoring is an important leadership function. It would be greatly beneficial to find an experienced senior leader willing to provide wise counsel and mentoring on a regular basis.

The business world of today is a complex, fast-paced, and demanding environment. Leaders must be skilled in a wide variety of methods and disciplines, both technical and interpersonal. And the trait of judgment has never been more critical to a leader’s success.

 

When a leader is described as professionally competent, what exactly does that imply? Is it a statement that the leader knows how to do everything? Or might it mean that the leader does some things well, perhaps even extraordinarily well?

Perhaps a designation as professionally competent means something different.

Management thinker Lionel Urwick wrote over fifty years ago, “There is nothing which rots morale more quickly and more completely than… the feeling that those in authority do not know their own minds.” Incompetent leaders have innumerable opportunities to demonstrate their ineffectiveness either by doing nothing or by doing the wrong things. Incompetence erodes credibility which in turn erodes trust and loyalty. The end result is most often ugly and disruptive.

So what is professional competence?

Every successful leader has come to understand the core competencies necessary to lead complex, dynamic organizations. Good leaders must understand not just financial concepts, business strategy, and marketing, but they should also grasp the importance of written and verbal communications, employee morale and motivation, and the value of character and integrity. Competence isn’t gained by knowing how to do everything, but more in knowing what needs to be done and how to get it done.

Leadership competence develops from a combination of institutional schooling, rigorous self-development, and diverse professional experience. Building competence is therefore a gradual process, from mastering individual competencies to eventually applying and tailoring them in concert with others. Leaders continuously refine these competencies and learn to apply them to increasingly complex situations. Competencies are thus demonstrated through behaviors that can be readily seen by many others at all levels in the organization.

Leaders need to provide their employees reasons to trust and follow them. A demonstration of professional competence is an excellent beginning point.

How can a leader demonstrate such professional competence? Consider the following:

• Set an example of self-improvement. Whether in acquiring additional schooling, self-study, or merely by asking employees to give you a better understanding of a particular business process, demonstrate a sincere, serious quest for knowledge and improvement.

• Celebrate the wins. Provide your analysis on how and why the win was earned, and share the credit.

• Do a lessons-learned on the setbacks. This not only provides some important institutional memory, but also establishes a leader as unafraid to share and learn, even when the news isn’t good. And don’t be reluctant to accept the blame if warranted.

• Surround yourself with competent people. Know your strengths, but also know your weaknesses, and build the team accordingly.

• Teach, communicate, and perform at a high level. Self-explanatory, right?

Competence alone cannot guarantee a leader’s success, since there are other important traits that play into the leadership mix. But incompetence will almost assuredly result in a leader’s undoing. Professional competence—knowing what to do and how to get it done—is vital.