Features Leadership On the Edge

5 Leadership Lessons From a Hollywood Pope

shoes of fishermanIn an age of hubris, ego-driven entrepreneurs, and self-absorbed CEOs, two popes provide five lessons. Read  more in my Inc. column here.

Features Leadership On the Edge

5 Leadership Lessons From the Seder

passoverThe Passover Seder has much to teach us about how to lead, control, and manage a team.  Read 5 Leadership Lessons From the Seder in my column on

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Yahoo takes the Lead

In an industry-defining moment, Marissa Mayer taking on the position as Yahoo’s new CEO marks the youngest CEO to head a Fortune 500 Company, and the first woman to take on the role while expecting.

More than anything, it is the symbolic aspect of this event that makes the story so compelling. Only 37 years old, Mayer has already proven that she has the credentials for the post. Since joining Google in 1994, she has been an engineer, designer, product manager, and key spokesperson for the company. She held key roles in Google Search, Google Images, Google News, Google Maps, Google Books, Google Product Search, Google Toolbar, iGoogle, and Gmail. She also oversaw the layout of Google’s famous search homepage.

Many industry experts were surprised to hear Yahoo’s choice for the young new leader of the company. To couple the news, hours after Yahoo’s public announcement, Mayer sent out the now-famous tweet that she will soon be expecting a baby boy.

Yahoo’s move makes a bold statement in a season when the debate on female leadership and work-life balance has taken center-stage since the publishing of Anne-Marie Slaughter’s “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All.” A former director of policy planning at the State Department, Slaughter has become a central critic of the inflexible work culture that she claims made juggling high-profile government work along with raising two sons near-impossible, and led her to step down from her government post.

In recent years, Yahoo has been struggling to define itself as a relevant internet directory and search engine. Perhaps then, the company has decided to boldly begin its process of transformation in the spirit of progress.  When Mayer revealed her pregnancy to Yahoo’s Board of Directors last month, she claimed that no one raised any concerns, which implies Yahoo’s evolved thinking. She has also stated that she plans to take no more than a couple of weeks off for maternity leave and will work through it from home.

Many women are analyzing Mayer’s decision in light of the struggle for work-life balance. While some criticize her as a poor role-model for working women, many others hail her for embracing two challenges at once. Mayer herself seems to indicate that she simply prefers to stay in the rhythm of things. In any light, Mayer certainly has her work cut out for her in upcoming months.

Between a company that has many problems to fix and a woman who is supremely intelligent and eager to take on the task, one can hope this leadership transition marks the start of a synergetic relationship, as well as a cultural shift for women executives.

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Preserving the Skeleton

Yesterday, the media volleyed around stunning stories of tennis legend Venus Williams’ diagnosis of Sjögren’s Syndrome and her subsequent withdrawal from the U.S. Open. The story saturated mainstream news networks, receiving full court attention from health and lifestyle journalists in addition to devoted sports reporters. All this press served to racquet up both sympathy for Williams and intrigue into her “shocking diagnosis”, Sjögren’s Syndrome (Moisse & Childs, ABC News, 9/1/2011). In full disclosure, I also have Sjögren’s Syndrome, and fall in an exceedingly rare demographic as a young male afflicted by a predominantly older female autoimmune disorder. While I certainly appreciate the attention Sjögren’s will receive with the arrival of this high-profile case, I wish less to commiserate than I do to investigate how a leader navigates illness.

Venus Williams, who was recently ranked the 10th most powerful black woman in the U.S. and the 86th most powerful celebrity in the world (Forbes, The Celebrity 100), is certainly a leadership titan. She launched her own fashion line and interior design firm and is a co-owner of the Miami Dolphins. The list of accomplishments on and off the court is exhausting and diminishing for anyone who thinks they’ve found success.

Unfortunately so is Sjögren’s Syndrome. While the hallmark symptoms of the syndrome are dry eyes and dry mouth, the Sjögren’s Syndrome Foundation explains that, “patients may experience extreme fatigue and joint pain and have a higher risk of developing lymphoma” ( It’s certainly serves up a challenge for a part-time table tennis attendant let alone for a professional tennis star at the peak of her career.

We often speak of the importance of mobilizing an agenda, sustaining momentum, and tirelessly operating in a campaign paradigm. So how does a highly competent, politically savvy leader manage when the body starts attacking itself? I wish I had an easy answer for this nauseating challenge but (much to my parents chagrin) I’m no doctor and hardly a leadership expert.

What I do know and what we often emphasize is that organizations, like your bodies, are uncertain organisms. Just as you never know when Hurricane Irene will flood your foyer, you can’t anticipate illness. While we may wish our doctors worked next to our desks, we lack this luxury.

The key is maintaining your coalition and vigilantly preparing for disorder. God forbid the day arrives when your body turns on itself, but, if it does, you at least want to avoid having an autoimmune coalition that mimics your disease. Cultivate an earnest, empowered coalition that will brace your organizational body if your personal frame gives out. If Sjogren’s dries your glands, find a team that will lubricate your agenda and carry you to the finish line.

Venus Williams’ courageous response to her diagnosis was that, “[Sjögren’s] will help me to feel grateful for everything that I have. And at the same time it makes me want to get up and fight harder every single day” (Moisse & Childs). So have another cup of coffee, eat your deep fried Oreo, and confidently plunge into your campaign. But remember to remain mindful of your personal and professional health.

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Three Blind Mice

This post is the first in a series that dissects classic nursery rhymes in search of helpful leadership lessons for the proactive, politically savvy manager. Enjoy.

Blank space

Blank space

Three blind mice. Three blind mice.

See how they run. See how they run.

They all ran after the farmer’s wife,

Who cut off their tails with a carving knife,

Did you ever see such a sight in your life,

As three blind mice?

Organizations are laboratories of two conflicting, oscillating elements: competition and uncertainty. This is not to say that a leader perpetually operates in a competitive paradigm or that every detail ranging from an annual budget to a lunch special is uncertain, but nevertheless competition and uncertainty are omnipresent in organizations. When we then add the economic reality of scarcity into the equation, leaders are effectively transformed into blind mice.

Like the eponymous mice in this nursery rhyme, leaders rapidly mobilize agendas while understanding that their agenda is likely at odds with someone else’s campaign.

If a startup is attempting to corner the online cheese industry, it understands that other startups are pursuing the same consumer wheel and slices are limited. There are a finite number of farmers’ wives, seeking only so many discounts on aged Gouda spreads, and only the first mouse will reap the rewards.  Leaders at each startup then run alongside each other as they attempt to innovate and outperform their competitors on the road to execution.

Compounding their challenge is the reality that each manager is blind as she mobilizes her agenda. In an uncertain world, no one knows exactly where the expressway ends. Even if one knows her destination and scurries ahead of her competitors, there is no guarantee that a plate of cheese awaits the victor.

One startup could successfully monetize their cheese service only to discover that the dairy craze has ended and the market has shifted to a new sector. Or the farmer’s wife consumers may have changed their preferences and no longer want your gorgonzola. Here, executing the agenda can unfortunately mean executing yourself as you discover all your time and invested resources only lead you to the chopping block.

So the next time someone asks if you’ve ever seen such a sight in your life as three blind mice, open your eyes and find a mirror. You work in a challenging environment and it helps to pause occasionally and confirm that you’re not trapped in a fruitless (or cheeseless) rat race.

Pic credit: snacktime2007