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What We Miss from Our Leaders

By Paul Johnson

687 words. Abstract: If you follow the leader wrong you'll wind up right where you started, or worse. Learn how to close in on this simple source of success they won't teach you in college.

What do we really know about our leaders? We yearn to know enough to be confident in following them and, ideally, to emulate them. Perhaps you can name the leaders in the forefront of your industry or profession. Maybe you believe you could be more successful if you could be more like them, so you study their works, buy their books and perhaps even seek jobs in their organizations. Even when you've studied all you can about them and believe you understand the keys to their success, you don't. There's one more thing you must do.

Your quest for excellence is a noble journey. Unfortunately, the path often leads to insane frustration instead of triumphant success when seemingly little things are overlooked. Sometimes just one simple thing is the key to resolving the performance barriers that have been holding you back, allowing you to finally achieve your objectives with ease.

Show or Tell
It's been decades since apprenticeship was the common road to mastery of a profession or craft. Today college is the conventional answer, with knowledge dispensed via lecture halls, online courses, and e-mail exchanges with professors. Connections are casual and not very close. Today we are more isolated from the people from whom we need to learn. Technology makes it easy for leaders to protect their personal space and keep learners at a distance. Yes, we're learning, but we're not learning enough. We are not learning the important piece.

No matter how intently we listen to what others say, no matter how closely we watch what they do, our mimicry will be imperfect because we really won't understand why they do what they do. We must get close enough to understand the back-story. If we want to truly learn from another, we must get close enough to hear them breathe.

Nano Lessons
The leaders in our profession have made thousands of tiny choices which, in combination, have enabled them to perform at high levels. To perform similarly, we must understand their value system and how they came to make those choices. That's how successful leaders of the past learned to succeed.

  • Benjamin Franklin served as an apprentice to his brother James to learn the printing trade. Franklin's success as a printer later funded his kite flying and political ventures.
  • James Lick was the richest man in California when he died in 1876. He learned the piano making craft from his father, and Lick's mastery of those skills was the cornerstone to building his fortune.
  • Levi Strauss learned the clothing business working side-by-side with his older brothers Louis and Jonas in New York City. Six years later he moved to San Francisco to open up shop, and soon discovered an opportunity to apply what he knew to make rugged trousers for the gold miners.

Go to the Source
The words a leader uses and the acts they perform are only clues to how they think. Every person has an historical perspective and a point of view, or lens, they use to look at the world in which they perform. Unless you get close enough to hear a top performer breathe, you'll never have the opportunity to learn and discern those things. How a leader thinks is the key to understanding how they take in information, process it, and send it out, much like breath. Until you understand the source of what they say and do, you're missing the key ingredient that will enable you to duplicate their successful performance.

The top performers in any area of expertise require years to acquire and apply what they know to perform at peak levels. Be patient. A need for speed defeats success. Invest the time to build relationships and learn from the best, and allow breathing to occur at its natural pace. Don't rush it or you'll hyperventilate and get dizzy. Set aside the e-mail and the Internet, and arrange to spend long periods of time working side-by-side with the leaders from whom you want to learn. Breathe the same air long enough and one day you'll find others eager to duplicate your excellence as well.

© 2008 Paul Johnson. All rights reserved.

About The Author:
Paul Johnson the Trouble Breaker
( works with organizations like ADP, AutoNation and Roller Skating Business Magazine to convert trouble into double and triple digit performance breakthroughs. Discover neglected markets with The Great Brand Rush at http:/

Note: This article is available for reprint at no charge. We only ask that you include our copyright notice in your reprint, along with the About the Author information we provide at the end of the article.

A Question for your Comments: What precious insight have you gained from a close encounter with a leader?

Posted: under Achieving Results (Production).

Comments (0) Nov 01 2008

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Michael Phelps is Average

By Paul Johnson

829 words. Abstract: Michael Phelps is an extraordinarily talented athlete who can do wonders in the swimming pool. Yet the man is average. Discover how the average among us can compete and win the way Michael Phelps does. Learn how an average person can make a splash and never get wet.

Michael Phelps is the gold standard in the swimming pool, but don’t think of him as exceptional and special. He is just like you and me. Average.

How can that be? At the 2004 Athens Olympics, Michael Phelps claimed 8 medals: 6 gold and 2 bronze. He holds 4 world records and 11 individual world titles. Phelps is favored to break still more records at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Nothing average about that! Truly, Michael Phelps is an extraordinarily talented, gifted, and capable athlete who shines brilliantly in the swimming pool and on the medals stand. You and I certainly can’t compete with that.

A Zero in Every Ten

Fortunately, we don’t have to. That’s the beauty of being average. On a scale of zero to ten, 5 is average. We’re all given a different mix of strengths and abilities. While we might be a 0 in one area (like me in a swimming pool), we’re likely 10 in another area (like Michael Phelps is in the swimming pool). Or maybe we have two strong talents, one at an 8 and another at a 7. Zero, 8, and 7 averages out to … 5. Average.

When we see Michael Phelps glide through the water, we really don’t care what his zeroes are. His coach doesn’t make him run during the team’s dry land training because Phelp’s flexible ankles — an asset to swimming — make him prone to tripping and falling. We’ll probably never see him win on Dancing with the Stars, but that really doesn’t matter. What does matter is that Michael has (1) discovered his key talents and (2) is applying them daily.

Strengths Select You

We, on the other hand, continually worry about "fixing" ourselves where we are below average. "I can’t diagram a sentence." "I speak with an accent." "I can never remember where I put my glasses." So what? We’ll never enjoy all we can from life if we spend our time working on the weaknesses. We need to find ways to tap into our strengths, to (1) identify our 8’s, 9’s, and 10’s, and then (2) put them to work for us every day.

The Gallup pollsters have done research over decades that show top performers are not those that repair their weaknesses. Instead, top performers discover their strengths and then sharpen and polish them to make them even better. In their book, Now, Discover Your Strengths, authors Marcus Buckingham and Donald O. Clifton list 34 strengths that everyone enjoys in some combination, plus point readers to assessment tools to enable them to discover their top five strengths.

Michael Phelps has found at least one of his strengths, and it’s a thrill for the rest of us to see him apply it. Whether he’s pulling through the water with those huge hands, torpedoing the competition after a turn, or closing a race to finish well ahead of the rest of the field, we’re excited to watch. But what about us? We’re meant to be more than just spectators in the game of life.

Late is Still Great
You are really great at something; have you found it yet? Alan Opdyke of Snellville, Georgia wins awards for breeding guppies. Bill Porter of Portland, Oregon became a top salesman despite his cerebral palsy. Michael Phelps is lucky because he found — with the help of a coach and his family — something he is good at while relatively young. Yet late bloomers are all around us. Charles Hurme won the USTA National Senior Hard Court Tennis Championship when he was 90. Just because you haven’t found your 10 yet doesn’t mean you don’t have it in you.

If you’re still thinking I must be writing about someone besides you, that you have no talents and abilities above a 5, you’re wrong. You’re not inadequate, you’re just chicken.

Maybe you’re reluctant to try new things. Maybe you’re afraid to get hurt, physically or emotionally. Maybe you’re terrified to discover another thing you’re not good at. What if Edison had chickened out after his 999th try in his quest to create the light bulb?

Listen for "Wow"
Accept the fact that you’re average and do something positive with it. Stop wasting time working on abilities at which you’ll never be exceptional. Shift your efforts to trying things that interest you. Act on your curiosity and desire. Pay attention when people pay you a "Wow" compliment. Take a chance on yourself. Challenge yourself to find the excellence within you. Don’t ever let anyone imply that you are "just" average. Find your strengths, and then have the courage to apply, hone, and polish them. Stand Out. Excel.

It’s unlikely that we’ll ever join Michael Phelps in the pool, but that doesn’t mean we can’t make a splash in our own way every day. We may all be average, but in some way we’re also extraordinary as well. Find and apply your "extra" and you’ll be far from ordinary.

© 2008 Paul Johnson. All rights reserved.

About The Author:
Paul Johnson the Trouble Breaker is a keynote speaker who works with organizations to convert trouble into double and triple digit performance breakthroughs. Discover breakthrough concepts at Visit for presentations on performance improvement.

Note: This article is available for reprint at no charge. We only ask that you include our copyright notice in your reprint, along with the About the Author information we provide at the end of the article.

A question for your Comments: What do you know about Michael Phelps that enables him to excel?

Posted: under Achieving Results (Production).

Comments (0) Aug 01 2008

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Business with a Tropical Attitude

By Paul Johnson

1160 words. Abstract: Think business, think tropical. At first, they may not seem to go hand in hand. Yet we know that "having the right attitude" is important. If you’re ready for boldness, clarity, diversity, friendliness, style, and a new definition of professionalism, you can find it all in the tropics – even the energy of life itself! You’ll be more successful – and have a gas doing it – when you approach your business with a tropical attitude.

Think business, think tropical. At first, they may not seem to go hand in hand. Yet, you’ll be more successful — and have a gas doing it — when you approach your business with a tropical attitude. You can find it all in the tropics… even the energy of life itself! You just have to see what’s already there, and bring it to work with you every day.

Color Me Bold
First, take a moment to embrace the colors of the tropics. We’re talking vivid green palms, crystal blue lagoons, fiery red sunsets. These are not colors for wimps. Mauve and taupe are not found below the 30th parallel, except on the backs of tackily-dressed tourists from colder climates.

No, tropical colors are bold and straightforward. They imply some risk-taking, a willingness to hang it out there, a willingness to take a chance on hearing a “No” for the opportunity to hear a “Yes.”  We won’t move ahead by always playing it safe. If something is really worth doing, really worth risking the consequences, it’s boldness of action that brings those dreams to fruition. Be bright. Be bold. Be tropical.

Clarity Therapy
Tropical colors are also about contrast. They’re about bright colors, multiple colors, laid side by side; clear lines of definition that command attention and assist recognition. Do you claim to be “the leading provider of premier solutions to valued business partners”?  Bad news; you’ve got a case of Lookalika disease. I recommend a trip to the tropics for treatment, healing, and therapy, not necessarily in that order.

Take the poinsettia plant. The contrast of the red leaves against the green makes that plant stand out in a stunning way – especially when they grow six feet tall in the tropics! We need to stand out in our environment, or get lost in the background. We need to clearly separate ourselves from the people who compete in our space. We need fresh lines of definition so that people can understand how we’re different in a positive way. That brightness and clarity makes it easy for people to find you, identify you, and do business with you.

Diversity University
A tropical attitude also respects diversity. Tropical rain forests cover less than 6% of the Earth’s total land surface, yet they are home for up to ¾ of all known species of plants and animals. Much of the beauty of the tropics stems from the variety of foliage and the animal life it supports.

We, too, lose our vibrancy, our “Wow!”, when we’re all the same. Yet many organizations seem to think they can conquer their market by mandating paramilitary processes and straight-line thinking. IBM became famous (or is it infamous – I get those two mixed up) for their salesforce of blue suits and white shirts.

Of course, things are different today. Many organizations recognize that diversity of culture, race, gender and, ultimately, thinking is where their innovation and top performance comes from. This is despite the fact that it takes more effort on our parts to learn to live and work together when we’re all so different.

As Steven Covey puts it in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, "It’s unity, not sameness, that’s cool.”  (I paraphrased a little). When you embrace a tropical attitude to respect and unify diversity, you’ll have all the competitive edge your business will ever need.

Waves of Warmth
And how could you have a tropical attitude and not be warm and friendly?  I want to feel good and smile at people for no apparent reason. When I wave at people, I’d like them to feel good about waving back. OK, maybe they could just return my voicemail.

Sure, we all know that people do business with people, and relationships are important. So let’s drop the unfriendly behavior, like taking cell phone calls in the middle of a conversation, or multi-tasking when we should be focusing on the relationship at hand.

If people really do business with people they like, what are you doing to make it easy for people to like you?  Take on a tropical attitude and help your customers and co-workers warm up to you. Stop being so busy once in a while. And wherever you are, be there.

Naturally You’ll Win
A tropical attitude will help you relax. When you’re enjoying the tropics, you’re relaxed, you act more natural. When you operate in a relaxed, natural state, your personal strengths and talents can shine through. The best part of you is brought to the party. You don’t even need a margarita to “loosen up!” 

You can use the best of your own style and personality to get the job done in a way that’s natural for you, in a way that feels right, that "fits.”  The paradox is that you’ll get to your desired results quicker when you don’t rush to them.

In sports, players talk about being in “the Zone,” when everything comes together and you just become unstoppable. Sure, first you prepare, you practice, you get ready to go. Then it’s time to lighten up, let go and play your game in your own way. Don’t worry, be scrappy!

Dead Man Talking
Now don’t think for a moment that having a tropical attitude is unprofessional. A tropical attitude is professional; it’s just not formal. When I hear someone say, “We’re professionals,” the first words that come to mind are stiff, boring, dead. It’s difficult to foster genuine business relationships when you’re stiff and boring, and impossible when you’re dead. First and foremost, a professional shows genuine care, consideration, and respect for the other person. They listen carefully, respond decidedly, and act with integrity.

Following formalities can actually get in the way of professionalism, because they are artificial and can disguise the real you. “How are you?” … “I’m fine, thank you.”  Did a real exchange take place?  “May I help you?” … “No, thanks, I’m just looking!”  Can’t we communicate better than that?  After all, a tropical attitude is vivid and bright, without being shocking or obtrusive. Perhaps you can rework some of your conventions and rituals of business to reveal your professionalism in an informal way. Let your tropical attitude reflect the real you and show what you stand for.

Alive to Enjoy
Perhaps most of all, the tropical environment is alive. It has its own energy and vibrancy that stimulates powerful creative forces and allows the mind to find new solutions to old problems. From the first promise of a sunrise to the final reassurance of a sunset, the fresh patterns and hues that change with the light of day can help you make new connections and discover new options.

The tropics let you think without actually making you think. Ah, paradise! Bright, active, energizing, and alive… just the way I prefer to feel every day on the job. You’ll learn to enjoy every day and expect success when you start doing business with a tropical attitude.

© 2008 Paul Johnson. All rights reserved.

About The Author:
Paul Johnson the
Trouble Breaker
is a keynote speaker
who works with organizations to convert trouble into double and triple digit
performance breakthroughs. Discover breakthrough concepts at
Visit for
presentations on performance improvement. Call Paul direct in Atlanta, Georgia, USA at (770) 271-7719.

Note: This article is available for reprint at no charge. We only ask that you include our copyright notice in your reprint, along with the About the Author information we provide at the end of the article.

Posted: under Achieving Results (Production).

Comments (0) Jun 18 2008

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Work: The New Four-Letter Word

By Paul Johnson

1,137 words. Abstract: For many of us, job satisfaction is elusive and
work has become a four-letter word. Discover how you can upgrade your
situation so you can be paid to play and make "work" go away.

"Savannah would be a good place to retire." That stray comment wafted my way from the folks conversing at a nearby Atlanta Bread Company table. Have you thought about where you would like to retire?

That’s a trick question. The real question is: Why would you want to EVER retire? After all, if you love what you do AND you’re getting paid for it, why would you ever want to stop?

"Obviously," you say, "Paul Johnson does not live on the same planet I do. My job is frustrating and unfulfilling, like it is for most everyone else I know." It seems everyone is working for the weekend.

Life Revived
What if it doesn’t have to be that way? It’s a shame to think we are missing out on our life, at least for 40 hours a week (who am I kidding? According to The Week magazine, the average male works 100 hours more per year than they did in the 1970’s, while the average woman works 200 more hours.) In 1854 Henry David Thoreau wrote, "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation." Does that apply to us today? After all, this life is the only one we get.

If "work" has become a dirty four-letter word for you, I bet I can guess your story. It’s probably similar to mine. We finished school and had to find a full-time job (in my case, I started working BEFORE I finished school). We didn’t have any experience so we couldn’t be too picky. Eventually we accepted a job, not necessarily because the industry, or the work, or the future looked particularly exciting, but because it came with a marvelous fringe benefit known as a "paycheck. " Still it was all exciting because it was all new. Before we knew it, we developed our skills and got good at what we were doing. We earned promotions and raises, and soon acquired stuff like a mortgage, spouse, dog and 2.5 kids, not necessarily in that order. Somewhere along the way we realized that we’re not too happy with what we’re doing for work. Every day. Two hundred twenty days per year.

Did your "starter" job accidentally become your career? Perhaps "work" has become a dirty four-letter word because we feel trapped in an industry, a career or a company. We can’t afford to make a change now. Because we accepted a job early on, we’re expected to accept our lot in life now. Oops.

Fresh Advice
For decades young people have been encouraged to pursue what they’re good at irrespective of what they like to do. My high-school counselor told me my high test scores meant I could "do anything I wanted." That was so NOT helpful. Nobody suggested I should consider a career choice based on something I actually LIKED to do. As a result we stop exploring our options when we’re much too young, and then settle on a career much too early.

Here’s the problem I suspect you’d like to solve: you would like to find a way to get paid as much or more than you do now, and derive more satisfaction from work. In short, you’d like to get paid well to play.

Let’s explore this using three simple concepts, Good, Like and Pay. For many of us, we accepted a job and got Good at it such that employers are willing to Pay us to do it. Unfortunately a lot of Like is missing, so we engage in weekend hobbies such as tennis, fishing or reading to fill that void. If we could have a "redo at life," we would be better served to have explored things that we’re Good at that we also Like, and then find a way to make it Pay.

If you could find a way to do that now, you’ll earn much more tomorrow than you do today. Why? When you Like your work, you immerse yourself in it. You’re happy to read more on the subject, and you’re happy to think, explore, and analyze related topics why you’re taking showers, doing laundry and cutting grass. When you can immerse yourself in something you love for 40 + hours a week, it doesn’t take long to develop expertise that will make you highly valued and highly paid in any domain. As the late Earl Nightingale observed, one half hour of study per day will make you a nationally known expert in that field in just five years. Do you like what you do well enough to study it for a half-hour every day, or is reality TV more appealing?

Play in the Intersection
Here’s what you can do to start making the shift. First, take inventory of what you’re Good at and what others, like your employer, will Pay you to do. That’s a great foundation.

Next, observe what you Like. Specifically, take note of the experiences that you enjoy recreating for yourself time and time again.

Third, explore different ideas and options for ways to combine what you’re Good at with what you Like to do in ways that will Pay. Put together a plan to move you to that intersection.

When you execute your plan to move you to the center of Good, Like and Pay, your work will truly become your play. Retirement? Forget about it!

What do you have to lose? Trade in those unfulfilled dreams and feelings of frustration for joy, fun, satisfaction… and more money, if that’s what you want.

Play with Purpose
If you’re searching for purpose in your life, consider this: God doesn’t want you to settle. He (or She) gave you talents and abilities, likes and dislikes, so you can make a valuable contribution to the world we all live in and be rewarded in ways that will truly satisfy our needs. Don’t believe the myth that work and play are mutually exclusive. It’s merely coincidental that work and play are both four letter words.

James A. Michener offers:
"The master in the art of living makes little distinction between his work and his play, his labor and his leisure, his mind and his body, his information and his recreation, his love and his religion. He hardly knows which is which. He simply pursues his vision of excellence at whatever he does, leaving others to decide whether he is working or playing. To him he’s always doing both."

Of course, these are just a few of my observations and opinions. I may be full of it. . . or not. But I am wondering, what’s keeping you from solving this problem for yourself? What successes have you had in finding a balance between Good, Like and Pay so you could make work your play? If you’d like to continue the conversation, please feel free to share your Comments below.

© 2008 Paul Johnson. All rights reserved.

About The Author:
Paul Johnson the Trouble Breaker is a keynote speaker who works with organizations to convert trouble into double and triple digit performance breakthroughs. Visit for leadership presentations on performance improvement. Call Paul direct in Atlanta, Georgia, USA at (770) 271-7719.   

Note: This article is available for reprint at no charge. We only ask that you include our copyright notice in your reprint, along with the About the Author information we provide at the end of the article.

Posted: under Achieving Results (Production).

Comments (0) May 01 2008

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Performance Improvement in a Sorry State

I recently read a great article by Julie Cohen titled Sorry No More that expands on my article, The Sorry Epidemic, which I posted on September 5, 2007.

As you may remember, my article suggests that we say "sorry" way too much, and at inappropriate times. Julie gives some specific examples of how great performance is negated when workers are needlessly sorry. Plus, she suggests how we can analyze why we might use "I’m sorry" when we really mean something else, and how that self-awareness can lead to performance improvement and business breakthroughs for our careers (Julie’s specialty is career coaching and work-life balance).

You can find Julie Cohen’s website and some great career resources at

Posted: under Achieving Results (Production).

Comments (1) Apr 15 2008