6 Ways Jane Austen Would Have Survived Cubicle Life

By | BLG Leadership Insights, Managerial Competence, Political Competence, Proactive Leaders | 3 Comments

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Jane Austen is credited with creating some of literature’s first “modern characters.”

“Modern characters” are just normal people doing normal things. They aren’t powerful warriors in the vein of Achilles or tormented queens like Lady Macbeth.

They’re just the ordinary people you meet every day.

But these characters are hardly boring. Instead, modern characters are recognizable personalities that can teach us a lot about the frustrations and joys of social interactions and institutions.

Jane Austen helped shape this modern movement from a small rectory in North East Hampshire, a few rented rooms in Bath, and a modest house in Hampshire. Her life was quiet and filled with financial stresses, a failed romance, and numerous family dramas.

Austen had little schooling and she never had the time or money to discuss literary theory with London’s primer authors. Yet she wrote six novels that were well regarded both in her century and in ours.

Austen’s ability to observe and her persistence helped her become an accomplished writer–but would these same skills and sensibilities help her survive the modern office? Would her independent and sharp nature thrive in a world of lay-offs and “action-plans”?

These silly questions led me to think of a few reasons Jane Austen might have succeeded in the modern office:

1. Austen Knew How to Deal With Boredom

It’s easy to see Austen making copies and collating documents when she writes in Mansfield Park, “Life seems but a quick succession of busy nothings.”

Indeed, Austen has the mental fortitude and the jaded wisdom to survive the minutia of office life. Her ability to look at cubicle life as a collection of minor actions will afford her the opportunity to pursue larger goals to stave off ennui. Boredom often produces brilliance.

2. Austen Would Deal With Failure

In 1803 Austen’s brother, Henry, went to a London publisher named Benjamin Crosby. He showed Crosby Austen’s first novel, Susan, an epistolary novel centered around a brash young women. Crosby liked what he saw and bought the book for 10 pounds–but he never published it. Later, Austen wrote a long and angry letter to Crosby asking for the rights to Susan back. Crosby agreed–if Austen could pay back the 10 pounds. Austen couldn’t afford the price and had to leave Susan unpublished.

Lots of writers would lose confidence after a slow, dragged-out rejection–but Austen kept writing and trying to get published. In today’s business world, Austen’s determination would have earned her a few promotions and the respect of her peers.

3. Austen Understands the Golden Leadership Rule

It’s odd when you read an interview with a CEO and they DON’T mention the importance of having a smart team. The golden rule in business demands that you surround yourself with people who can do crossword puzzles faster than you.  Austen agrees. In her novel Persuasion the following dialogue occurs between the obstinate Anne and Mr. Elliot:

“My idea of good company…is the company of clever, well-informed people, who have a great deal of conversation; that is what I call good company.”

“You are mistaken,” said he gently, “that is not good company, that is the best.”

Austen would only mix with the hard-working, book-loving, strivers in any office and this would propel her career.

4. Austen Could Take Constructive & Un-constructive Criticism

The most scathing critique of Austen comes from Mark Twain. Twain wrote to a friend, “Jane [Austen] is entirely impossible. It seems a great pity that they allowed her to die a natural death.” Thankfully, Austen wasn’t around to hear Twain’s remark.

However, Austen faced critics in her own time with little irritation.

In 1811 she published Sense & Sensibility and made a good profit and collected favorable reviews. Soon after, she published Mansfield Park which was panned by critics, but was extremely popular. Austen didn’t let high-brow criticism drown her ambitions and she went on to write Emma, Persuasion, and Northanger Abbey.

5. Austen Could Work From Home

We hear the real Jane Austen, momentarily, in Mrs. Elliot’s character in Emma.

She says to the meddling Emma: “Ah! there is nothing like staying at home, for real comfort. Nobody can be more devoted to home than I am.”

Austen rarely traveled and rarely expressed a desire to see the corners of the earth. She was the most productive at home and her mother and sisters would do extra chores so Austen could write without disturbance.

She would have been at home in today’s virtual economy where everything is done remotely, out-of-office, and through email or video chat. Austen could have climbed the corporate ladder without leaving her settee since she was self-motivated and didn’t need a boss or a commute to inspire her to action.

6. Austen Didn’t Like Stupid People

Austen was a master at reading people, mapping out their actions, and dissecting their intentions. All six of her novels prove this point.

But ultimately Austen could judge a person’s intellect by using one criterion.

In Northanger Abbey Austen’s urbane Henry Tilney says, “The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.”

While these words don’t necessarily echo Austen’s sentiment–they probably aren’t too far off. Austen, it would seem, wouldn’t tolerate stupid co-workers.

But the quote also illustrates that Austen valued self-improvement. Novels helped Austen learn more about her craft and the world around her. Her efforts to learn, develop, and grow would have been valued at any firm.

7 Productivity Tips From Ernest Hemingway

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Ernest Hemingway may go down in the history books as a hard-drinking, big-fishing, Nobel-Prize-winning writer, but he was also a productivity guru. Throughout his career he often gave advice to young writers and openly talked about his work habits and writing style. Even if you aren’t a writer Hemingway’s tips and tricks can help you increase your productivity.

Follows is a list of productivity tips that come from Hemingway himself…and they aren’t just for writers.

1. Don’t Waste Words and Be Clear: Hemingway is famous for getting to the point and killing unneeded adjectives. When he was challenged to write a six word story, he wrote “For sale: baby shoes, never used.” Clearly, he knew how to be economical with his words. If you want to get things done you need to exercise the same verbal restraint. Meetings, email exchanges, and conversations often spill into the late afternoon because people employ too many words. Keeping it short, simple, and clear will save time, cut down on confusion, and get everyone back to work.

2. Make a Schedule: Everyday Hemingway would  wake up at 7am and try to write between 500 to a 1,000 words. The rest of his day he devoted to a combination of fishing, hunting, and drinking. Give yourself a schedule. As Jeanette Winterson, another writer, says, “Turn up for work. Discipline allows creative freedom. No discipline equals no freedom.” Routines and schedules give leaders the ability to be creative and consistent.

3. Quit While You’re Ahead: Hemingway said “The best way [to write] is always to stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next. If you do that every day…you will never be stuck.” If you do one task well and you know what to do next, it might help to pause and tackle it the next day. Getting something done every day will increase your confidence and keep momentum going.

4. Keep Your Mouth Shut: According to Hemingway, it’s bad form for a writer to talk about his work. He said discussing writing takes off “whatever butterflies have on their wings and the arrangement of hawk’s feathers if you show it or talk about it.” Don’t discuss your project or new idea until you are certain it is clear and well thought out. Talking about a new proposal or plan too soon can give your competition time to coalesce against your idea. Productivity will suffer if you spend more time talking about your idea than acctually moving it forward.

5. Don’t Give Up: Hemingway once told F. Scott Fitzgerald, “I write one page of masterpiece to ninety one pages of shit. I try to put the shit in the wastebasket.” You need to be able to be critical of the work that you do complete. Not everything you do will be perfect. Increased productivity will help you make a lot of progress, but you need to approach it with a critical eye. Don’t get frustrated and give up because you feel you are doing a bad job. Keep producing and moving forward. Eventually you will do one thing very well.

6. Work Standing Up: Hemingway wrote standing up because of a minor leg injury he got in World War I. But, his vertical habit isn’t that odd. Thomas Jefferson, Winston Churchill, and Donald Rumsfeld, among other popular figures chose to stand up while they work. Standing while working can increase productivity by fighting fatigue, the allure of napping, and minor distractions. According to the New York Times, it can also help you lose weight.

7. Lastly, Hemingway said, “Never mistake motion for action”:  Leaders have to remember that productivity is about action and getting things done–not running around in circles.

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Pope XVI’s Resignation Took “True” Leadership

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popeThis weekend CNN contributor Ronald Martin has written an excellent article about Pope XVI’s resignation.

He writes, “It takes considerable courage for anyone to step away from the power bestowed upon them by a position, as well as the trappings that come with it.”

For Martin, Pope XVI’s resignation was more about courage than anything else. The courage to know when enough was enough and turn away from the power of ones position.

Today’s leaders need to learn for the Pope XVI’s move. Like Martin says, a leaders “final legacy…is defined by how they left a place.”

6 Hacks Leaders & CEOs Use to Achieve Success

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Winston Churchill Rolling

Studying the biographies of great leaders is often an intimidating experience. As you skim the resumes of your favorite business heroes and read the obituaries of your much-loved political leader you think to yourself, “That can never be me.”

But that’s far from the truth. Most leaders had a pretty harrowing journey to the top and wouldn’t have achieved their success without relying on pragmatic, micro-skills that anybody can learn.

Follows are a few specific skills used by history’s greatest leaders that anyone can master:

1. Don’t let the judgment of others get in your way

Henry Ford was described by those who knew him as a “rather shiftless farmboy-turned mechanic who, at the age of thirty, was spending most of nights tinkering in a back room or laughing and joking with boys.”

Not high praise.

More damning was Henry’s father. One observer wrote, “I could see that old Mr. Ford was ashamed of a grown-up man like Henry fussing over a little thing like a quadricycle.”

Henry knew that his father didn’t approve and was “heartbroken”  about it. However, that didn’t stop him from fussing with his “quadricycle.”

Leaders need to dismiss criticisms. The path to success is often stop-and-go due to naysayers and doubters. Focus and persistence pays off.

2. Talk to everyone

Sam Walton writes in his biography, “In college…I would always speak to the person coming towards me. If I knew them, I would call them by name, but even if I didn’t I would still speak them.”

This positive, happy-go-lucky attitude made him recognizable to everyone on campus. Sure, he might of made some people think twice about his over-eagerness, but at least they knew who he was.

Walton’s talk-to-everyone policy paid off. “I was elected president of the senior men’s honor society,” Walton writes, “and officer in my fraternity, and president of the senior class.”

Like Walton, leaders should try to make it habit to talk to everyone they can. Some conversations may be unprofitable, but the conversational practice can help leaders earn respect from customers, loan officers, and clients.

3. Take every job seriously

In 1849 Andrew Carnegie became a telegraph messenger. By all accounts it was a dull, boring job.

However, Carnegie, unlike the droves of other young men who crowded the industry, didn’t think the gig was all that bad. He mastered the trade and got a raise. Over time he learned who each mover-and-shaker in Pittsburgh’s business community was since he helped send their messages via telegram.

Carnegie became so good at the art of telegraphing he could write down messages by ear rather than by studying sheets of transcribed Morse code.

When the Pennsylvania Railroad needed a new telegraph office manager—Carnegie, although young, was the only logical choice.

Carnegie was now on the ground floor of America’s fastest growing industry. He proved himself capable and, of course, the rest is history.

Leaders should handle all assignments, projects, and duties with respect and interest. A little application can go a long way.

4. It’s OK to be scared of risk

George Eastman didn’t quit his job at the Rochester Savings Bank when he started tinkering around with cameras, film, and dry plates. He stuck to his banking duties and only played with his camera equipment on the weekends and evenings. He may have remained at the bank longer while he experimented with his camera gear if it weren’t for the bank’s cruel management. They didn’t offer Eastman a promotion and instead gave it to a son of one of the bank managers. Furious, Eastman quit and started his small business, which grew into Eastman Kodak.

Eastman felt no rush to jump into business and didn’t enjoy the risks of entrepreneurship. He patiently developed products and inventions in his spare time and only started his own company only after being forced into unemployment.

Leaders need not be mavericks and renegades. They can wait it out for the right moment.

5. You don’t have to be a stick in the mud

Herb Kelleher, former CEO of Southwest Airlines, used humor to market his company, talk to his customers, and communicate with his staff.

Kelleher displayed his natural good humor when another company sued Southwest over a trademarked slogan. Kelleher took the legal battle into his own hands and challenged the CEO of the suing company to an arm-wrestling match. Kelleher won.

The relaxed, quirky atmosphere helped make Southwest a company people could relate to and trust. Kelleher’s easy ways and charm helped create an environment where it was fun to work.

But Kelleher was always the consummate professional. He comments, “What really adds up to professionalism is being very good at what you do in a very modest way.” Kelleher knew that he could have a good time just as long as the work got done.

Leaders don’t always need to be cold, reserved figures. They can be relatable and can enjoy a good time.

6. Burst the knowledge bubble

During WWII Prime Minister Winston Churchill failed to adequately defend Singapore, figuring that the minimal defenses stationed there were enough and that the Japanese forces in the Pacific theater wouldn’t dare attack what was considered an impregnable island.

However, Churchill and his staffers guessed wrong. Japanese forces descended on the island on Feb. 15th, 1942 and easily captured “60,000 Imperial troops in Singapore – 16,000 British, 14,000 Australian and 32,000 Indian soldiers.”  Not to mention resources and equipment.

Churchill accepted defeat and admitted he “ought to have known” about the danger. He asked four questions of his staff to figure out how he could have been so horribly informed. They were: “Why didn’t I know, why didn’t my advisers know, why wasn’t I told, why didn’t I ask?”

The disaster taught Churchill to be critical of what he knew and what he was told. Moreover, he forced himself to break out of his knowledge bubble by asking himself about his lack of inquisitiveness.  These invaluable questions help Churchill navigate the rest of the war with more conviction and confidence.

Individuals must actively break their knowledge bubble and make sure they are looking beyond what they are told. Leaders who look beyond what they are told and ask more probing, deeper questions will have a leg up on the competition.

5 Productivity Tips From Mark Twain

By | BLG Leadership Insights, Features, Proactive Stories | 2 Comments

mark twain

Popular pictures of Mark Twain show the American man of letters in a relaxed slump, enjoying a cigar, and sheepishly scanning a warm summer afternoon in a comfortable, white linen suit. A calm, restful smile resides on Twain’s lips and his wild, white hair appears to have recently departed from a goose feather pillow.

On first glance, Twain doesn’t seem like a very productive soul, but you can’t judge a book by its cover.

The fact is Twain was a steady, consistent, and productive writer who tirelessly worked on his craft. There’s a reason why Hemingway called Twain’s most popular book, Huckleberry Finn, the root of all modern American literature.

Twain’s impressive work rate is the result of his happy outlook on life and his unique principles. Even if you aren’t a writer, the following list of Twain’s productivity tips will help you work harder and smarter:

1. Don’t be a perfectionist:

Twain observed, “I don’t give a damn for a man that can only spell a word one way.” Twain didn’t let misspellings and rules of grammar get in the way of his storytelling. He believed in telling simple, humorous tales. Twain left the editing to the editors. This carefree attitude spurred his creativity and let him develop his own style that wasn’t beholden to established rules of fiction

Don’t waste all of your time editing and making things perfect. Give yourself time to be sloppy, creative, and messy. It gives you the opportunity to express yourself without barriers. You can edit, retool, and tweak later.

2. Mind your company:

Productivity isn’t always about waking up early, setting a schedule and trying your best to ignore your email and phone. Sometimes it boils down to confidence and Twain believed only certain people inspire self-assurance.  Twain writes, “Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great make you feel that you, too, can become great.”

Ignore the naysayers, the cynics, and the folks who are always sucking their teeth whenever a new idea is brought up. They are the “small people” and all they want from you is to join them in their misery. You must associate with people who allow, encourage, and demand big dreams.

3. Laugh at work:

Everyone has their favorite Twain joke. Mine is, “Be careful about reading health books. You may die of a misprint.”

Twain knew that humor, jokes, and laughter soothed many headaches and ills. “Humor is the great thing,” Twain writes, “the saving thing. The minute it crops up, all our irritations and resentments slip away and a sunny spirit takes their place.”

If you have a mountain of work and stress dogs your daily life than take time to seek out humor. Laughter will help you relax. Once you’re relaxed you can get back to work with more clarity and focus.

4. Develop good habits with incremental steps:

Twain knew that good habits are hard to acquire. While it’s easy to say you’ll get up early and visit the gym, it’s another thing completely to obey your screeching alarm clock before the sun begins its day.

Twain had a hack to instill good habits and it goes as follows, “Do something every day that you don’t want to do; this is the golden rule for acquiring the habit of doing your duty without pain.”

He went on to observe, “Habit is habit, and not to be flung out the window by man, but coaxed downstairs, a step at a time.”

Twain knew that one can’t simply pull a positive habit out of the blue. Good habits have to be worked at incrementally.

Twain also writes, “The secret of getting ahead is getting started. The secret of getting started is breaking your complex and overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks, and then starting on the first one.”

Don’t jolt your system into new, better habits. Gradually work your way into them so they stick.

5. Don’t follow conventional wisdom:

Twain didn’t believe in dieting or maintaining a healthy lifestyle. He smoked cigars, he drank, and he didn’t believe in abstaining from fattening foods.

When it came to cigars he had an especially large appetite. He writes, “I ordinarily smoke fifteen cigars during my five hours’ labors.” It is not exactly a habit one should replicate, but it illustrates that Twain allowed himself small pleasures while he went about his work.

There’s no rule forbidding yourself from small pleasures while you toil over your projects. Faced with a monumental task one should bear down and get to work while allowing for the odd indulgence.

After all, Twain writes, “There are people who strictly deprive themselves of each and every eatable, drinkable and smokable which has in any way acquired a shady reputation. They pay this price for health. And health is all they get for it. How strange it is. It is like paying out your whole fortune for a cow that has gone dry.”

How Do You Organize a Leadership Training Program?

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Yesterday Professor Samuel Bacharach’s article, Unbundling Leadership, was published on TrainingIndustry.com.

The article lays out a leadership training strategy that targets high-potential employees and ensures their future leadership success.

Here’s an excerpt from the article:

“In selecting a leadership program that is relevant for your organization, you want to make sure that:

– The leadership construct is presented as specific trainable skills.
– The training vocabulary is integrated with the business function.
– There is a serious partnership with the top leadership team.
– A networking training cohort is created to ensure follow-through.”