What Is the Leadership Message in All Quiet on the Western Front?

Last night my husband and I watched All Quiet on the Western Front. It was my idea to watch it because it has already won several awards and was nominated for several Oscars, including best picture. Right from the start, I wanted to turn it off and yet felt compelled to continue. 

This movie was graphic and harrowing; I think it felt real because of this. For two and a half hours, it was as if we were on the front lines, experiencing the horror while somehow safely tucked away from harm.

The book was required reading for most high school students of my generation. Upon reflection, I wonder why? Was it an attempt to prepare young men called to fight in Vietnam? Was it a silent protest on the part of educators? I don’t know, and I couldn’t find an explanation in my research. 

It’s a story of humanity and the loss of humanity while at the same time a story of leadership. Not the traditional message that military leaders are the best leadership examples and should therefore be role models. Instead, it portrays all types of leaders, fallible humans, capable leaders, and those that are completely incompetent. Most importantly, the writers showed us the human cost of hubris. 

I always remembered the book, especially the scene when the protagonist is in the trench with a French soldier. The movie brought home the message of humanity even more.

Sadly, as the horrors of war continue today in Ukraine and elsewhere, the following quote from Einstein reminds us how far we have not come.

“A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts, and his feelings as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”

Perhaps the message the author and the screenwriters are sending is:

It is time for those of us who have the responsibility and the honor to lead to also take on the responsibility to practice humanity.

How Is This Labor Day Different?

The first nationally recognized Labor Day celebration was in 1894. The AFL claimed this day with a street parade sending a message of “the strength and esprit de corps of the trade and labor organizations.”

Yet, before the pandemic and what we perceive as the consequent labor shortages, except in specific industries like construction, unions had declined. Today unionization is growing in companies like Apple, with a reputation for being employee-centric. 

While unions certainly have always had their place, especially in the safety arena, I wonder what else is driving the change we see today?

Economists say inflation is the cause; prices are going up faster than wages, and people are organizing because they can’t keep up. People often feel that being part of something gives them agency. Human resource professionals say that a lack of effective two-way communication leads to a lack of trust, leading to organizing.

Whatever the reasons for the change, as we celebrate this first post-pandemic (yes, I know it’s still with us) Labor Day, that marks the end of summer and the beginning of autumn, might we also view it as a beginning for how we show up at work and ask ourselves:

  • As a leader, what can I do tomorrow to learn what drives each person on my team and create an environment where each person can pursue their individual passion while contributing to the success of the team?
  • As a follower, what can I do tomorrow to add additional value to the success of our company while being true to what matters to me?

It’s The Experience That Matters

My husband and I are both foodies; we love to cook and experience food events. Recently, along with another couple, we signed up for an “underground dining experience.” We had attended one of these before with a young chef who was relatively new on the restaurant scene and had a wonderful time. In addition to his culinary skills, this chef was warm and engaging. We felt as though we were guests in his home.

The chef of this more recent event had previously owned a Michelin 2-star restaurant that was in business for 3.5 years. After such a short time, earning two stars (out of a possible three) was impressive. We had not been to the restaurant but had heard and read great things about it, so we were excited to attend what we expected would be an intimate evening.

Sadly, we were disappointed. 

The food was meticulously prepared and tasty, technically correct in every way. But, the experience…. well, it wasn’t an experience. We left saying to each other that this evening was about one thing, the chef making money after the restaurant closed.

Despite emails admonishing us to arrive early (we all did), we were seated 45 minutes after arrival, and then the staff rushed us out so they could prepare for their second seating. The chef did not engage with the guests; the courses were served, he explained the ingredients without flourish, and then went back to the kitchen.

So what, you may be saying, why do I care?

Care is what was missing, and care is precisely what he reminded us is critical to delivering an experience to our customers. Technically correct is simply that, and it is not enough. What we as humans want is engagement. We don’t do business with companies; we do business with people. And it is that human connection that delivers and receives delight.

In short, it’s all about the experience. Without engagement, all we have is a transaction. No matter how technically correct the delivery is, it will never achieve the value one is willing to pay for an authentic experience.

The Elephant In the Room

The other day, I asked for feedback from a team I was working with about the program’s value. One of the members came up to me afterward and said, “please don’t take this personally,” and gave me some additional feedback. My response was,” the elephant is in the room whether we talk about him or not. For me, I would prefer to know what you are thinking and feeling so that I can modify the program to give you results that meet your needs.”

Yes, the elephant is in the room whether we talk about him or not. There he is, clomping around, banging into things.

And yet, we often refuse to talk about him. Why is that? Here are the reasons I hear:

  • I don’t want confrontation
  • I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings
  • We can’t do anything about it anyway

My experience is that our reluctance to confront causes the elephant to cause more damage than if we just talked about him and got him out of the room.

It is our role as leaders to invite and initiate the conversation. With the elephant out of the room, we can get on to business. As long as he is there, we are focused internally instead of externally.

Labor Day in a Pandemic – Year 2

When the first nationally recognized Labor Day was celebrated in 1894, the day consisted of a street parade sending up a message of “the strength and esprit de corps of the trade and labor organizations” (in the words of the AFL). 

We have come a long way since then. Today, especially in this war for talent, most employers focus on offering opportunities and benefits to attract and retain talent.

Yet, the disruption from the pandemic continues. Help wanted signs everywhere, a labor shortage stretching from unskilled workers to high-level professionals and executives. 

Pundits of all types are offering commentary on this topic. Some say it’s a permanent shift only to be resolved by wage and price inflation. Others say we have a move away from work and that automation will resolve the issue.  

The Economist recently published a report entitled Will the Rich World’s Worker Deficit Last?  The authors estimate the current employment deficit to be 3% below the pre-pandemic level. While acknowledging demand shortages, their research shows that supply shortages are more significant. They describe three causes of the reduced supply: disruption owing to the spread of covid-19, primarily as a result of disruption to migration; the impact of welfare policy and pensions, recent research by Goldman Sachs, finds that “excess retirees” account for about a quarter of the decline in the country’s participation rate; and finally “changes to longer-term attitudes” wrought by the pandemic. 

They conclude by saying that “it seems that the extent to which the worker deficit endures will depend in part on how long the disruption and the fear caused by the pandemic last. Rising wages might lure some of those who left the workforce back into jobs. But the longer the pandemic goes on, the harder it becomes for those who left to return, and the more likely it is that new habits stick.”

Time will tell. And, as always, within every challenge lies opportunity.  

In the United States, we live in a world full of innovators. I am looking forward to seeing the solutions entrepreneurs come up with to address this latest labor challenge.


Better, Better, Maybe Not?

The notion that we can constantly make ourselves and our companies better, in theory, is a great idea. But when does it become too much?

For me, the best way to answer this question is to notice our strengths and work to enhance them. As an executive life coach, I refer to this as discovering and working in our genius.

Sometimes we become so focused on achieving that we cannot appreciate who we are or what we have already accomplished. When we are constantly reaching, it’s a recipe for perpetual dissatisfaction. 

What? Wasn’t I just quoting Florence Nightingale a few weeks ago, who said discontent leads to innovation? Yup. It is indeed a delicate balance, isn’t it?

For me, the subtle difference between striving to make the world a better place and pausing to celebrate accomplishment comes with self-awareness. The stoics said it well. We must be careful not to become reactionary or to accept, without question, the status quo. We must know ourselves, know our geniuses, and recognize where and when we can make a difference and where and when we cannot.  

Once we understand and act within our genius consistently, we become more effective, more satisfied, and ultimately better leaders. 

What Is Vulnerability?

I find that the topic of vulnerability comes up frequently in discussions amongst leaders with varying descriptions of what it means to “show vulnerability.”

Here are some questions to expand the dialogue:

  • Does vulnerability have to mean showing emotion?
  • It’s OK for a woman to have tears and talk about feelings, but still not OK for men?
  • What’s the difference between showing vulnerability and showing weakness?
  • How do we, as leaders, coach the leaders we work with on how to show up both confident and vulnerable?

And here are some stories from leaders I’ve worked with:

“I was a relatively new leader of a high growth business. We missed our numbers one year, and up in the front of the room, I teared up when I shared the news with my team. I felt shame that I didn’t control my emotions. Yet, the team rallied, each leader coming up to me to commit to what they would do to make sure it didn’t happen again.”

“First at age 18, and then at age 22, I entered the two most emotionless organizations there are, West Point at age 18 and Marines at age 22. In some way, these experiences hardened me to outward emotional signs. Then as a small unit infantry combat commander in Vietnam, we had to suppress and not show any emotions despite what we may have felt inside. To show emotions to the 18 & 19-year-old Marines that we led wasn’t viewed as something commanders did, and we worried that emotions might enter into the brutal things we had to do in the infantry. In our generation, it wasn’t considered ‘Marine like’ to show emotion—which of course led many of us to suppress PTSD feelings.”

“I have been working on culture in my company. Frustrated with the lack of progress, I stood up in front of the entire leadership team, all levels, and told my personal story, my values, my expectations of myself as a leader. Wow, what an impact it had; people began to ‘get it.’ And yet, I discovered that my two senior leaders, both women, struggled with this. They said they work hard to be “professional,” and to them showing or talking about feelings was weak and unprofessional.”

For all leaders, it is important to have followers trust our message. As such, there is a fine line between appearing vulnerable yet confident and appearing weak. These stories speak to different ways to address this challenge.

For me, it’s something like this,

  • Vulnerable is I am human. I make mistakes, admit them, learn from them, and move on.
  • Weak is I am uncertain. I don’t trust myself, I don’t know what to do.


The Gift of Feedback

Feedback is a gift. It is an opportunity for personal development and, ultimately, leadership development. And, it is hard; Very hard.

I am not sure which is harder, giving feedback or accepting it. Recently I was with a small group of fellow coaches, several of us long-tenured, and we were discussing this very topic. We spent a couple of hours working with each other to improve our skills at both. I mention long-tenured, as a reminder to myself, that no matter how skilled we think we are at this, it is hard, and requires constant practice. Following are the reminders I heard.

When giving feedback:

  • Start from a place of care, ask yourself what outcome you want to achieve from the feedback, and get clear that you really believe that outcome is possible, i.e., is the person capable of the behavior change you want to see?
  • You can earn trust with truthful, specific, positive feedback (TSP as speaker, Michael Allosso, calls it).
  • When giving constructive feedback, ask first if the receiver is open to feedback.
  • Even better, wait until the feedback is asked for.
  • Own your experience, share feelings and observations; be specific.
  • Use neutral language, e.g., my experience of you… or When you do…, I feel…
  • Remember, the purpose of feedback is to share your experience of another person, not to “fix” the other person.

When receiving feedback, remember it is a gift:

  • Ask for feedback, and be specific about the purpose, e.g., I want to become more effective at…
  • Listen and digest.
  • Try not to defend or respond, simply say, thank you.

Let’s work together. If you are looking to grow or get unstuck and cut the time to action to six months or less, there is no better time than now to contact me. 

© EKS LTD Please feel free to forward this blog in full with attribution, including the copyright notation.

It’s Not About Color, Or Is it?

I’ve spent a lot of time this past week talking about racism. The conversations began with wondering why, the murder of George Floyd last week sparked protests nationwide when the killing of Eric Garner, in 2014 did not. Then when the looting began, the conversation turned to one about fear.

As a teenager in 1968, when protestors were attacked by the police during the democratic convention and later at universities, I felt solidarity. Friends tell me their teenage and young adult children feel similarly now.  

For me, today, it is more complicated. It’s a conversation about the increasing divide between the haves and the have-nots. It’s a conversation about violence. And, as I have come to realize, most importantly, it is a conversation about racism. 

As a country, we are reluctant to talk about race and even more unwilling to talk about racism. And yet we must if we are ever to understand our fellow Americans. When the “enemy” is nameless and faceless, it is easy to hate. On the other hand, when we talk to one another and begin to understand that the “other” is not the enemy, rather s/he is just different from me, we can learn from and understand one another.

As a Jew, when I watched the Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville, VA in August of 2017, I heard my mother’s words to me as a child, telling me that anyone who isn’t Jewish is deep down anti-Semitic, and wondered if she were right?

Today, I hear, “all white people are deep down racist, and police officers, in particular, are racist,” and I wonder if this is true?  

And, as one who believes in the general good of humanity, I don’t want to believe any of this is so. And yet, something is clearly wrong. 

Some say this is a seminal moment and that Mr. Floyd’s murder is a catalyst for change that is long overdue. I hope so. 

And because we humans relate to stories, here are two I heard this week that will always stay with me.

Dr. Julius Few, an intensely private man and a prominent Plastic Surgeon practicing in Chicago and Los Angeles, decided to share his story on Instagram. Dr. Few grew up in a wealthy white suburb of Detroit. While his parents weren’t wealthy, they worked hard to live in this community to provide him and his brother what they believed was an opportunity. Instead, unbeknownst to his parents, he was a victim of racism every day. Dr. Few’s video story appears in two parts:

Part I – https://www.instagram.com/p/CA6uBDQjxZF/ Part II – https://www.instagram.com/p/CA6vlEjjhUg/

A dear friend of mine, an accomplished, highly educated business person, told me that when he was a teenager growing up in a middle-class neighborhood in Chicago, he was walking down the street one day, and several police officers suddenly came upon him, guns pointed. They told him he “looked like” a man that had just held up a liquor store. While they were holding him down, they got a call on the radio, and then abruptly left.

My friend told me he had forgotten about this until the current situation reminded him. “Forgot or buried it,” he wondered out loud. Of course, as you probably guessed, my friend is black. The saddest irony of this story is that my friend’s father was a police officer who died in the line of duty, not so many years later. 

For me, these two stories remind us that we must take time to follow the guidance from Steven Covey and seek first to understand

Here are a couple of resources I found this week to begin my learning:

Introvert or Extrovert: Who Makes the Better Leader?

Extroversion is the dominant style in the United States. As a result, we sometimes confuse leadership with charisma. Yet, research shows that not only are 40%-50% of CEO’s introverts, some of the more “famous” CEOs are also introverts, including Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, Charles Schwab and Steve Spielberg. 

Amongst entrepreneurs, the numbers are higher. Why? Because entrepreneurs frequently are the expert at their chosen business and experts most often are introverts.

So what does this mean?

First, recognize that extroversion/introversion isn’t binary. Most leaders tend toward one style or the other. Leadership, by its very nature, doesn’t attract people who live in extremes.

As with all style differences, start by celebrating and leveraging the differences in style. While other factors come into play in style differences, the key difference between introverts and extroverts is where they draw their energy. 

Both introverts and extroverts seek input. Introverts tend to ask for feedback and then “go within” to think things over and make a decision. One thing to keep in mind about introverts – they aren’t necessarily shy, frequently just quiet – taking it all in.

Extroverts tend to think out loud, drawing their energy from the interaction with others. 

Introverted leaders are frequently your “back of the room” leaders – they are calm, unemotional, and perceived as wise. 

They are the ones that speak infrequently, but when they do, everyone listens.

Extroverted leaders are typically the “charismatic leader” – they are engaging, inspiring, and draw people to them.

If you are an introverted leader, leverage your natural strengths:

  • allow yourself to pause and reflect before making a decision and let others know this is your style
  • leverage your ability to build relationships with small groups inside and outside your company
  • And, take note when it is time to access your extroversion to rally the troops inside your company or externally show up as an ambassador

If you are an extrovert leading introverted leaders, you can help by:

  • giving the introvert time to think
  • asking them what they think rather than assuming by being quiet they are not in agreement
  • inspiring the introvert to step out of their comfort zone when it is time for them to be inspiring to the team

If you are interested in learning more about this subject, one of my favorite books on the topic is Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.

Let’s work together. You can learn more about my leadership coaching and peer advisory boards here.