How’s Your Core of Excellence?

Apple no core

Have you ever heard a message that sounded great at the beginning, but as the message went on, you realized there was something wrong? A 28-minute video entitled A Spirit of Excellence was recently recommended to me.

The speaker’s audience was business people. His focus was the impact that a spirit of excellence can have on your life and on your business. Performing with excellence gives you influence that others don’t have. At this point, I was all in. But as the minutes ticked by, I sensed that something was missing. As he began to give illustrations of excellence and non-excellence, every single one was about how well you’re dressed, if your kids are messed up, if your store is clean, etc. I realized his message rang hollow because he was focusing on the outside—on image—while having a core of integrity was missing!

My grandfather owned an apple orchard, and I would often go visit on crisp, fall days and pick my very own red delicious apple from the tree. I would bite into it and experience a loud crunch as I bit into the apple and, then, the explosion of sweetness as the juices dribbled onto my tongue. It’s an excellent fruit and one of my favorites. But without the core of the apple, which contains the seeds, there would be no fruit. It’s the same with leadership.

After 35+ years in the workplace, I am an absolute believer in doing all you do with excellence. But excellence isn’t created unless you start at the core. As character and integrity grow, our choices to pursue excellence have greater and greater influence by planting seeds that produce more excellence.

Planting seeds of humility, wisdom, peace, mercy, justice, honesty, respect, and grace do more for the next generation of leaders than you can imagine. We need more leaders who have solid cores of integrity to plant seeds so that the fruit of excellence is evident in the next generation of leaders.

Take a moment to be deeply honest with yourself. Using the continuum below, diagnose the current level of your integrity by placing an X on the continuum.

Inconsistent words & actions                                                             Consistent words & actions

Focus on getting what I want                                                              Focus on mutual benefit

Win at all costs                                                                                   Inspire trust to produce results


How’s your core? Are you leading with integrity and planting seeds of excellence?

But as for me, I shall walk in integrity. Psalm 26:11

A Prerequisite for Exceptional Leaders

LIncoln internet

During the 2008 election, David Letterman took to the streets and interviewed voters.  He showed Obama supporters McCain’s positions and asked them if that’s why they were voting for Obama.  They said yes.  Then he showed McCain supporters Obama’s positions – and they too agreed that’s why they were voting for McCain.

That was a seminal moment for me.  I realized how the lack of critical thinking training and skills in this country was impacting our way of life.  Critical thinking improves the quality of your decisions and your integrity by enabling you to be informed by the thoughts of others, the evidence, and your core values. 

I taught a class on critical thinking at Belmont University as adjunct faculty for two years.  We looked at various issues in the US and applied CT skills.  Whether our classes revolved around the fight for civil rights, the power of voting, religious movements in the US, the influence of advertising, or choosing integrity, the discussions were lively and deep.  One student who went on to law school has stayed in touch and shared with me how much the class changed her perspective.

There aren’t any studies I can find that show how many people practice thinking critically.  My best estimate would be that 75-80 % of the population doesn’t practice it at any level   This is demonstrated by people who simply repeat what they’ve heard, or take a side without being able to defend their choice.  Have you ever received an email or seen a Facebook post that seems flat out wrong?  I once got one that pictured an Al Qaeda march in Michigan.  When I researched the photo, I found it was originally taken in Pakistan and then used by someone to foment fear and anger.  Those who simply forwarded it or shared it were failing to think for themselves and had a negative impact on others. 

That leaves 20-25% of the population who may be applying some critical thinking skills.  When done well, it includes researching and analyzing both sides of an issue, then looking for evidence you can observe that supports the side you think is strongest.  At the highest level, critical thinking then merges your analysis of the issues with your values and includes subjective thought.

Robert E. Lee practiced critical thinking in April1865 when he made a choice to defy President Jefferson Davis and commit what could be considered treason and insubordination when he surrendered to General Grant.  His letters gives us glimpses into his struggle between what was commanded vs. what was right. He analyzed both the arguments for surrender and for continuing the fight, looked at the evidence around him that supported both, merged his thinking with his faith, and choose to surrender.   His choice was the beginning of the end of our civil war.

As we face challenges in our companies and our country in the coming years, as leaders, we MUST learn to practice critical thinking in our own lives.  For those we work with and do life with, we must also teach and model it.  A prerequisite for exceptional leaders is encouraging discussions and debates of issues that are done with critical thinking, respect and dignity. 

Did you know Hitler won leadership over the Nazi party in 1923 by ONE vote?  How might that outcome have been different had one more person thought more deeply about his or her choice?  How could your life, your leadership, and your integrity be changed by critical thinking? 

How do you pick up the pieces when life takes a tumble?

On our recent vacation, we flew through the Milwaukee airport.   After going through security, we spotted what they call the “recombobulation area”.  It’s the place where you

  • Put your belt back on
  • Put on and tie your shoes
  • Put your wallet back in a pocket
  • Get your laptop back in it’s case
  • And put your jacket back on.

Most people end up feeling a little discombobulated after being screened.  So it was great to see the airport had a sense of humor and provided an area where you can get it all together again.

When your life takes a tumble , or you are just are worn out from the cares of this world,  you need a recombobulation areas in your life.  As we stress out over work, as we are stripped of our dignity by others, as we start to question who we are and why we do what we do, spending time in quiet helps us pick up the pieces and put them back together again.

My recombobulation area is a small table at a downstairs window that looks out over a variety of bird feeders in our back yard.  Time with the Lord, in prayer and journaling – where I can look up and see the beauty of His creation – makes all the difference in how I approach the world.  It keeps me whole and helps me maintain my integrity.

“A lack of quiet in a leader’s life leads to soul insanity.”   –Dan Webster

Savvy & Skill vs. Character & Integrity

Setting for the Sermon on the Mount

As I mentioned in my last blog, one of my favorite thought leaders is Dan Webster.  Dan has a workbook called The Real Deal – Becoming More Authentic and Life and Leadership.  I’ve lead teams through it and done it personally 3 times over a twelve year period.  It has had a deep and profound effect on how I lead and who I am.  One of my favorite thoughts from Dan is this one:

“Am I impacting people because they admire my leadership savvy and skills or are they impacted by my character and the beauty of my soul?”

 When I first read that question, it had a huge impact on me – making me think and reflect on whether I had substituted image for character and integrity.  While I certainly want my teaching, coaching and consulting to have an impact, I realize that I want my character and integrity to be at the forefront.  I want the larger impact of my life to be because I truly loved and respected others, valuing the dignity of all – because I lived, loved and Lead Like Jesus.

Soul Insanity

One of my favorite thought leaders is Dan Webster.  Dan was at the forefront of leadership authenticity – long before Lencioni or Maxwell got in the game.  Two of his thoughts have resonated with me over the last 12 years and they keep popping back up in my mind just when I need them.  In this blog, I’ll address the first one.

“The absence of quiet in a man or woman’s life slowly leads to a state of soul insanity.”

 That one sentence is filled with such truth.  On the days when I skip my morning quiet time, the day just doesn’t go as well.  It’s a lesson I’ve learned over and over, and gradually I’m becoming better about not letting something take its place.  When I fail to slow down, I lose touch with who I am and I lose the ability to resonate with others.  As a result, I lose my ability to influence – to lead.

Research has shown that when we are under stress we default to a leadership style that is dissonant – resulting in a lack of trust, burn out, anger and frustration among those we lead.  Slowing down – keeping our soul sanity – helps us be resonant leaders who are known for collaboration, trust, empathy and the ethical use of power. 

 If we want to lead others, we must first lead ourselves.  It’s a matter of integrity.

Twenty-One Things Leaders Should Stop Doing


Marshall Goldsmith is one of the top executive coaches in the country.  This list comes from his work-  – comments in italics are my additions.    Which one hits home for you?

  1.  Winning too much – at the expense of others or integrity
  2.  Adding too much value – ask “Is it worth it?”
  3.  Passing judgment  – discernment is OK, judgment is about people
  4. Making destructive comments  – sometimes we don’t know the impact of our words
  5.  Starting with “no”, “but”, or “however” – start with “why”, “how”, “tell me more”
  6.  Telling the world how smart we are  – any level 5 leaders with humility?
  7.  Speaking when angry – good emotional intelligence keeps this from happening
  8. Negativity – or “Let me explain why that won’t work” – “how can we make this work?”
  9. Withholding information – power plays that backfire
  10.  Failing to give proper recognition – plan to over-recognize
  11. Claiming credit that we don’t deserve – do you use “I” more than “we”?
  12. Making excuses – they change nothing.
  13. Clinging to the past  – sometimes letting go of what worked then is the hardest
  14. Playing favorites – everybody has their favorites, it ‘s about fairness
  15. Not listening- this happens when my to do list dominates
  16. Failing to express gratitude – gratitude can make everything look better
  17. Punishing the messenger – look for the source
  18.  Refusing to express regret – we are a forgiving people when others admit mistakes
  19.  Passing the buck – take responsibility for your self and your actions
  20. An excessive need to be “me”  – the best leaders adapt to the people they work with
  21. Goal obsession to the detriment of the mission – complete – don’t compete