Archive for March, 2008

Don’t Let Them Make You Crazy

Thursday, March 20th, 2008

Think of that one person who drives you absolutely crazy - that one person who really “pisses you off”, makes you feel guilty or sad. Does someone come to mind?

For almost all of us, the answer is a definitive “Oh, yes!”

We may have spent countless hours reliving events when this person was unfair, unappreciative or inconsiderate. We may have thought, “What a jerk!” over and over again. Even remembering this person may make our blood pressure rise, our pulse race with anger and our minds fill with grief.

Try not to let this person – or other people like him – make you feel so miserable. Their problems are their problems. Try not to make them your problems. Letting other people “get to us” is seldom a good idea for two reasons: 1) it usually doesn’t help the situation and 2) life is too short to spend all of our time feeling bad.

An old Buddhist parable may help.

A young farmer was covered with sweat as he paddled his boat up the river. He was going upstream to deliver his produce to the village. He was in a hurry. It was a hot day and he wanted to make his delivery and get home before dark. As he looked ahead, he spied another vessel, heading rapidly downstream toward his boat. This vessel seemed to be making every effort to hit him. He rowed furiously to get out of the way, but it didn’t seem to help.

He yelled at the other vessel, “Change direction you idiot! You are going to hit me. The river is wide. Be careful!” His screaming was to no avail. The other vessel hit his boat with a sickening thud. He was enraged as he stood up and cried out to the other boat, “You moron! How could you manage to hit my boat in the middle of this wide river? What is wrong with you?”

As he strained to see the pilot of the other vessel, he suddenly realized that there was no one in the other boat. He was screaming at an empty boat that had broken free of its moorings and was just floating downstream with the current.

The learning point of this story is simple. There is never anyone in the other boat. When we are screaming – we are always screaming at an empty vessel.

That other person that is making you so angry cannot help but be who he is. Getting mad at him for being who he is, makes as much sense as getting mad at the chair you are sitting in for being a chair. The chair can’t help but be a chair. The other person can’t help but be who he is. If you had his parents, his genes and his background, you would be him.

You don’t have to like the other person. You don’t have to agree with the other person. You don’t even have to respect the other person. Just accept the fact that he is who he is and decide not to let his craziness become yours.

In many cases, the deeper cause of our anger is really not the other person. We are usually mad at ourselves.

On a recent flight, I was talking to an investor who had bought a small business. He was livid about how the original owner had let him down. In spite of the owner’s positive initial impression, he seemed to lack motivation and had consistently missed commitments. The investor went on-and-on about how the owner had “led him on” and how he had made a poor investment. The investor was a multi-millionaire who lived in a beautiful home in Switzerland and had a lovely wife and child.

I asked him how long this had been upsetting him. He angrily grunted, “Far too many months!”

I suggested that the real cause of his anger might be that he was incensed with himself for being a poor judge of character and not conducting adequate due diligence in the purchase.

After careful thought, he reflected, “You are exactly right. In hindsight, I was a dumb ass for making this purchase. I usually have a great sense for these deals. I just screwed this one up! The person that I am really pissed off at is me! I think of myself as a great judge of character and I really missed this one.

I suggested that getting upset with himself for making one mistake was even crazier than getting upset at the other person. He was just a human and was extremely successful in spite of this one mistake. Besides, in the future he could learn from what he did wrong. By the end of the flight, he decided to sell the business, cut losses, get on with life, buy another business and enjoy his family!

The next time you feel like another person is making you crazy, just smile and say, “There is no one in the other boat.” Accept him for who he is and make the best of it.

Even more important, look in the mirror – the person you are really angry with may be staring back at you. Forgive yourself for making a mistake in judgment. Like my friend from Switzerland, cut losses, get on with life and enjoy your family!

Life is good.


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How Competitive Are You?

Sunday, March 9th, 2008

There’s a fine line between being competitive and overly competitive, between winning when it counts and when no one’s counting-and successful people cross that line with alarming frequency.

The reason I devote so much energy to identifying interpersonal challenges in successful people is because the higher you go, the more your problems are behavioral.

At the higher levels, all the leading players are technically skilled, smart, and up-to-date on the technical aspects of their job. You don’t get to be the CFO without knowing how to count, how to read a balance sheet, and how to handle money prudently.

Behavioral issues become so important in upper management. All other things being equal, your people skills (or lack of them) become more pronounced the higher up you go. In fact, even when all other things are not equal, your people skills often make the difference in how high you go.

Who would you rather have as a CFO? A moderately good accountant who is great with people outside the firm and skilled at managing smart people? Or a brilliant accountant who’s inept with outsiders and alienates all the smart people under him?

Not a tough choice. The candidate with superb people skills will win out every time, largely because he will hire people smarter than he is about money and be able to lead them. There’s no guarantee the brilliant accountant can do that in the future.

Think about how we perceive other successful people. We rarely associate their success with technical skill or brainpower. Maybe we say, “They’re smart,” but that’s not the sole factor we attribute to their success. We believe they’re smart and something else, and we give them the benefit of the doubt on skill. We assume, for example, that our doctor knows medicine, so we judge him on “bedside manner”—how he tolerates our questions, maybe even how he apologizes for keeping us waiting too long. None of this is taught in medical school.

We apply these behavioral criteria to almost any successful person—whether it’s a CEO or a plumber. As we become more successful, the attributes on our resume recede into the background, and more subtle attributes come to the fore. Jack Welch has a Ph.D. in engineering, but I doubt if any problems he encountered in his last 30 years at General Electric were even remotely related to these skills. When he was vying for the CEO job, the issues holding him back were strictly behavioral—his brashness, his blunt language, his unwillingness to suffer fools. General Electric’s board of directors didn’t worry about his ability to generate profits. They wanted to know if he could behave as a CEO.

When people ask me if the leaders I coach can change their behavior, my answer is this: As we advance, behavioral changes are often the only significant changes we can make.

Life is good.


Adapted from Leadership Excellence, “People Skills”, April 2007