Why Your Biggest Embarrassment Makes You More of a Leader

Has something happened to you that you’re embarrassed to admit? Was it fair? Was it your fault? Do you feel like a fraud? Are you letting it keep you from leadership in your field or being of service to others?

How to get over your fear of failure

We were having lunch, my friend and I, catching up on business and life. But there was a purpose for our meeting that had a lot to do with his future plans. So after the small talk, he told me his story.

“I was passed over for promotion. It took me totally by surprise and put an end to my career. The worst part was, everyone knew it. I went from being the ‘go to guy’ to someone they’d pass in the hall with little more than ‘hello’. My opinions were ignored. Invitations dried up. It was the longest year of my life.”

But the opinion he held of himself was more significant than the reaction of co-workers. It shook his self-confidence and made him question the future.

“How can I help others achieve great things when I wasn’t successful in my own career? What gives me the right to offer advice, when I feel like I was a failure?”

  • Can you improve a relationship after you’ve been divorced?
  • Should you sit on a panel if your business went bankrupt?
  • Can you still parent if your child took a dark path?
  • Are you considered a community leader after losing an election?
  • Does depression keep you from offering hope to another?

Are you ashamed of something in your life that you’re using as a reason to keep from moving forward?

My friend almost did. And that would have been a darned shame. It’s because of that experience his value increased.

No one wants to follow someone who’s never been tested. You have figured out ways to bounce back from disappointment, rejection and loss. Like Thomas Edison, you’ve learned thousands of ways NOT to do something. You have learned how to navigate rough waters.

Do not let your worth be defined by one sliver in time. And don’t let the wisdom and experience you’ve gained from life’s ups and downs go to waste.

If you allow this one event to keep you isolated and diminished, someone somewhere will suffer because they didn’t have access to lessons you’ve learned.

You offer others a high value alternative to what, too often, is the norm: Big Hat, No Cattle (Randy Newman)

“Big head, no brain. Big snake, no rattle. Big boat, no paddle. Big belly, no heart.” 

You may not be “perfect”, wealthy or powerful by popular measure, but people of substance recognize battle scars as stripes on your sleeve.

In basic training, they took away our civilian clothes and issued fatigues, a version of the working man’s overalls. Only after we passed numerous tests and weeks of training did we get to wear our dress blues. Basically, you had to “earn your clothes”.

You have earned your clothes and through those struggles have built a great deal of equity in character and competence.

And you’re not alone. Many around you have forged ahead despite tremendous turmoil. You can tell who they are. There is wisdom in their eyes, patience in their soul and compassion in their hearts.

Those are the folks with the biggest impact on others. They’ve earned the right to say they are leaders.

Chicken Nugget Surprise Customer Service

I get the best stories from friends and readers! Here’s a great one from the fast food industry for your next customer service training class or coaching session:

Chicken Nugget Surprise Customer Service Training Story

My friend Julie and her sons went to a fast food place known for their chicken. When their meals arrived, Julie opened her little box and found three chicken nuggets inside. And snuggled right up next to them was a black ball that looked like a big blob of burnt batter. (How’s that for an alliteration?)

They were pretty surprised at this unexpected bonus. So when the woman who was clearing trays came by and asked if everything was okay, Julie showed her the big black ball. The woman peered in the box and said, “Oh my, now THAT is really special!” Then she called the Manager over.

The Manager took one look at the surprise inside and said, “My apologies! That should NEVER have happened.” He scampered away and a few minutes later brought them a coupon for a free meal, a new box of chicken nuggets and a cookie.

Then he said, “We just had a meeting in the kitchen to make sure this will NEVER happen again!”

Julie said, “They were falling all over themselves to make sure we were happy. I wasn’t angry or upset. I just wanted them to know about it.”

On their way out, her son wanted a refill on his drink. He told his Mom, “Yeah but everyone at the counter was busy with other customers, so I waited.”

Then, from out of nowhere, racing across the room came one man….

…who gave him a refill!

Turns out, the Manager who helped them was the franchise owner who just happened to be in the restaurant that day.

Julie said, “It’s amazing there. Everyone is clean cut. Shirts all tucked in. They call customers by name. When it’s busy, they stand in the drive-through lane, take orders and call it ahead so customers aren’t waiting as long.”


It’s refreshing to see excellent service at work in our community when we’re used to seeing so many mediocre and disrespectful behaviors. Watching good service come to life is inspiring and encouraging. In a crazy world, it makes us feel like something in life makes sense. And:

  • Consistency in day-to-day practices has a bigger impact on customers than once-in-a-while, over-the-top marketing campaigns or bells-and-whistles
  • Showing they care in multiple ways reinforces a verbal commitment to good service
  • You know they’re serious when they seize opportunities to teach IN the moment
  • Managers who respond quickly, then communicate results are great role models
  • And finally, you don’t have to have a book written about your company to have an influence

But who knows, maybe you’ll show up in an article or a training seminar on stellar service stories!

Related Article:

9 Words for Customer Service You Deserve

Does Your Difficult or Abusive Boss Need a Jerk-O-Meter?

Does your boss hate you, or are they a jerk to everyone? Here’s how to tell. When they’re not watching, test their overall jerk factor with a handy-dandy “Jerk-O-Meter”.

dealing with a jerk or a difficult boss

“The MIT Jerk-O-Meter attaches to your phone and uses electronic speech analysis to provide instant feedback to the person speaking on factors like stress, empathy and overall jerk factor. Studies evaluated how a person’s speaking style could reflect his or her interest in a conversation, when going out on a date or perhaps in buying a product. Results show that a person’s speaking style and tone of voice can predict objective outcomes with 75-85% accuracy.” (invented by Anmol Madan and colleagues at MIT Media Lab)

Think I’m exaggerating? One reader said this (and I paraphrase):

“I don’t know how to approach him because frankly, I’m afraid of him. He’s yelled at me and treats me like every day is my last on the job. I really think he hates me. And since he’s technically not breaking any policies, HR says there’s not much they can do. I’m trying to get up the courage to talk to him about this, but I’m really nervous. Can you help?”

Well, it appears you’ve got yourself a prime candidate for the “Boss Behaving Badly” Award. Unfortunately, few companies have rules against being a jerk, although he could earn himself a poor evaluation on communication skills and leadership competencies.

You may be given a cactus, but you don’t have to sit on it. –Anonymous

Thankfully, there’s plenty you can do to improve your situation. Use one or more of the below strategies:

Have the talk: Calmly explain why you don’t deserve bad treatment. Say, “When you do/say X, I feel Y (disengaged, discouraged, frustrated, upset, nervous) Then say, “I’m asking if you would treat me with like respect.”

Lean into it: Ask if they have concerns about your performance. Objectively consider this possibility. State your intent to improve things, then do your best to fix those issues.

Reframe: change how you see things. After the wildfire, our insurance adjuster would use the phrase, “If not for the fire…” to clarify why they’d make payments on certain expenses but not for others. It’s possible one day you could say, “If not for that boss, I wouldn’t have the great job I have now…wouldn’t have learned how NOT to manage people…wouldn’t have learned how to get along with people high on the Jerk-O-Meter scale!”

Make yourself indispensable: Anticipate their needs, respond more quickly, smile more often (go on, force yourself), work it, work it, work it! 

Limit your exposure: ‘Nuff said.

Find positive people: spend time with people who are optimistic, results-oriented and successful. This mindset can rub off on you and provide a buffer against the boss’s negative emotions.

De-escalate: In the customer service world, we learned to lower our voice a notch when facing an upset person. Stay calm. Respond with respect. Don’t give in to the emotion.

Don’t take it personally: Your boss could have a health condition, trouble at home, or be unsure of their own job security. Avoid making assumptions it’s only you.

Look for a new job: Put yourself in the driver’s seat so you feel a greater sense of control. This often works wonders on our psyche.

Gird your loins and wait it out: It’s possible they may be on their way out for one reason or another. (A friend of mine was once told, “Change happens around here one retirement at a time.”)

Then let me know how it goes. I promise to keep it confidential, but would like to anonymously share your results with the rest of our readers.

Oh, and before we go, here’s a message to the Boss:

Making people afraid of you is not a sound leadership strategy. People shouldn’t feel like they’re walking on eggshells around you. Your job is to earn respect, not fear. If this is all about a performance issue, then address it. Be clear with your expectations, be objective, and most of all be fair.

A few reading recommendations for the Boss:

  • It’s Your Ship, by Capt. D. Michael Abrashoff
  • Carrots and Sticks Don’t Work: Build a Culture of Employee Engagement with the Principles of RESPECT by Paul L. Marciano
  • The No A-hole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One that Isn’t, by Robert I. Sutton, PhD. (if you can get past the crude term, it’s a terrific book)

Thanks to everyone for writing in. Keep those questions coming!


15 Reasons Why Venting is a Bad Idea

4 Ways to Deal with a Difficult Boss

One Amazing Leadership Example

One Amazing Leadership Example

When I graduated from high school I decided to enlist in the Air Force. The idea of earning money for college, building a career and seeing the world intrigued and excited me. My friends were surprised. My parents were supportive. There was just one small problem – I had to lose 20 pounds to meet the Air Force weight requirements.

LaurieBasicTrainingSo all summer long I ate hard boiled eggs and tossed green salads. I ran around the neighborhood trying to jog off the weight. And slowly it did come off.

Then came the big day when my parents drove me to the Induction Center in Buffalo. I was eager to board the plane to basic training, but first there was a physical to face.

I sucked in my breath and stepped on the scale. The little old man with the bald head and wire rimmed glasses moved the weight slowly across the bar. I froze and watched as it settled in place just short of the goal. And my future fogged over as he said, “I’m sorry, young lady, but you don’t pass. You’re three pounds too heavy.”

I was devastated. Who knew how long I’d have to wait before I could join. Facing my siblings and friends would be embarrassing. We’d already said our good-byes.

So I waited for my recruiter to find me as I sat in the hall pondering my fate. He was a tall, thin man who had been very encouraging during my summer of sacrifice. He was eager to hear my news, but could tell something was wrong.

“I’m not going Terry,” I said with the tears starting to slip. “I still have three pounds to lose.”

He sat quiet for a minute, then jumped up and said, “We’re not done yet. Follow me.”

He pushed open the door to the stairwell and held it for me. “How bad do you want to go?” he asked. When I said it was the most important thing in my life, he started up the stairs.

“Then, follow me,” he said.

And together we ran up and down the stairs of the Federal Building in Buffalo NY until my legs were so wobbly I could hardly stand. He ran those stairs beside me when he could have just let me give up.

The little old bald man with the glasses was surprised to see me back. I stepped up on that scale and watched again as he moved the weight across the bar. And it stopped at half-pound-too-heavy.

Then he leaned over towards me and whispered, “Young lady, I’m going to let you pass. But if you EVER tell ANYONE about this, I’ll haunt you till the day you die!”

So at every speech I give and every chance I get, I tell this story and haven’t been haunted yet!

It’s what we DO that matters most. And sometimes taking that first step is all that’s needed for others to follow. Terry Nichols, thank you for being willing to lead. You made more of a difference than you’ll ever know.

Has anyone made a big difference in your life? How so? Please share in the comments below.

When Was the Last Time You Did Something New?

When my eldest son got his first job and began to make money, he opened up a bank account. Then he asked me how to write out a check.

He owed me money, so this was one skill I wanted him to get right!

“You put the date up here on this line,” I said. “Then where it says ‘Pay to the Order Of’ you write my name.”

So he wrote it up, ripped it out and handed it to me.

And on the “Pay to the Order Of” line he had written…



Of course, then he had to cross that out and write my REAL name.

You should have seen the look the bank teller gave me when I went to cash it.

I can’t remember the first time I wrote a check. It’s now such a normal activity, I don’t even think twice about it. (Unless there’s no money in the account.)

I do remember the last time I did something for the very first time, however.

I was nervous. I worried about how I’d feel if I failed. I didn’t want to look stupid in front of my friends.

How about you?

When we ask someone to do something for the very first time, it’s tempting to expect them to get it quickly. Often we hurry them through the process and “fill in the empty spaces” for them. Because it’s a no-brainer for us, we expect it to be easy for them.

Here are five things to remember next time you ask someone to change:

1. Do they know how? You’ve given them the “what to do”, but do they also know the “how to do it”? You may have to spell it out. Not everyone has the confidence to risk failure and it could keep them from trying.

2. Don’t expect them to go from 0 to 100. Sometimes we expect them to reach the goal in one giant leap. Most of us learn new things in increments, one step at a time. Define degrees of success.

3. Expect a relapse. Everyone stumbles and reverts back to a “safe zone” of what’s comfortable and habitual. Don’t give up on them just because they have a setback.

4. Recognize and reward. They’re not all the way there just yet, but find ways to celebrate forward movement. We all need encouragement along the way.

5. Ask for a self-assessment. You may have ideas about how well they’re doing, but be sure to ask them for an update. Let them tell you how they feel about their progress. Ask them to quantify it on a scale from 1 to 10.

My son now writes checks like a big dog! He’s graduated from college, bought a house, holds down a job and takes good care of his wife and son.

But he still calls me “Mom”!

Survival Skills to Navigate Change

Change, chaTornado Oklahoma, USAnge and more change! While some people think it’s good for us, I took an informal poll and that’s not necessarily true!

Many say we could actually do with a lot less change, thank you very much! We plead, “Why can’t things just settle down to a nice, steady pace so we can catch our breath? Is it asking too much to have time to implement one thing before we begin another?”

No doubt about it, change is in the air and whether we’re ready or not, it’s something we must adapt to regardless of how much pleading we might do. In fact, the ability to quickly deal with a changing environment is a survival skill.

So, here are a few practical tips to help us cope, no matter what life or business sends our way:

Prepare for the struggle before the storm. Ever notice we experience almost as much turmoil of “angst” preparing to make the change as we do going through it? This is especially true if we are the instigators. It’s not always easier to be the one who starts the process because of the toll it takes beforehand both mentally and emotionally. It’s almost a welcome relief once we’ve made up our minds and the change begins!

Manage both endings and beginnings. With every new beginning, we also face an ending – or two or three. Endings and beginnings can be constructive or destructive, but our job is to end as many destructive patterns, behaviors, relationships as possible. Then we must substitute them with constructive replacements. Something will fill the void, so let’s be sure to make a conscious choice rather than accept by default what happens to come our way. Fashion designer, Coco Chanel said, “It’s in the act of deciding what to remove that we place value on what’s left behind.”

Set a reasonable risk set point. In the book, Deep Survival by Laurence Gonzales, the author observes that most of us have a risk tolerance threshold or set-point. If circumstances change to lower the risk, we’ll raise the ante with our words or actions to bring risk levels back up to our personal comfort zone. Many of us will actually provoke change just to get some excitement brewing! We often forget, especially in a leadership role, that our “rope” is tied to others on our team who won’t be able to stop the fall should the leader lose his footing. At the very least, it puts them in a highly stressed environment and keeps the cortisol levels higher than need be. Short term thinking shuts down when cortisol floods our systems and that’s no way to treat a team!

Be as cautious coming down the hill as on the way up. More accidents happen to people as they’re climbing back down because they feel they’ve already reached their goal – the summit. Oh contraire! The real goal is to get down safely. So let’s not be seduced by that sense of relief, sunny skies, singing birds and the wind in our hair! Let’s pay just as much attention so we don’t lose our footing during implementation and post-change gap-analysis as we did during the ascent.

Adopt a positive mental attitude by helping others. In life or death situations, doctors and nurses tend to have higher survival rates. In addition to being better trained, they’re also focused on helping others, which takes their minds off their own concerns. It’s easy to get so wrapped up in ourselves that we slide quickly towards depression and apathy. We feel like we have no control over circumstances and once we adopt a mindset of “Who cares, anyway?”, we’re doomed.

Instead, it’s better to channel our energy towards helping others adapt. The result of this service-oriented mindset? We become stronger and find it much easier to maintain a positive mental attitude, no matter what life and business throws our way!

Mount Rushmore National Monument to Persistence

A few years ago, I visited Mount Rushmore for the first time and wondered why I hadn’t gotten there sooner. Put it on your “places to go list”; it’s pretty impressive. The 500 ft. famous faces of four Presidents, Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt are snuggled shoulder-to-shoulder in granite, 7242 feet above sea level. This monumental project encompassed the 14 remaining years of 60-year old Gutzon Borglum’s life. The sculptor began in 1927 with 400 local miners under his guidance and the carving was completed under his son’s direction seven months after his death.

Project Management at Its Best

Borglum built a model of the completed sculpture to  transfer the portrait of the four figures onto the granite cliff. He mounted a protractor on top, and attached a metal rod to pivot outward across an arc of measurement over the model’s face. He then attached a plumb bob to the end of the metal rod to determine the horizontal distance, in inches, from any point on the string to the nearest point on the model. A similar design, 12 times larger, was installed on the mountain. By substituting feet for inches, workers were able to determine how much rock needed to be removed. When they finished roughing out the figures, they then used “honeycombing” techniques with air-powered tools to drill closely spaced holes to exact depths. Chisels and hammers were used to break away the rock between the holes. Work crews blasted within 4 inches of the finished surface and removed 90% of the 450,000 tons of granite from the mountain with dynamite. The final process was known as “bumping”, where pneumatic drills and special bits graded contours of the lips, nose, cheeks, neck and brow resulting in a finished surface as smooth as a concrete sidewalk.

A Profile in Persistence

There is a laminated card on my desk that urges, “Press on. Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.”

I can only imagine there were days, weeks, months – years even, when Borglum and his crew were discouraged, disheartened and didn’t at all want to press on. There were probably times when the weather got bad, money dried up, workers got sick and they looked for the fastest way off that mountain. Perhaps interpersonal squabbles threatened to interfere with the work at hand.Borglum may have anticipated that possibility at the christening of this national shrine when he said, “We believe the dimensions of national heartbeats are greater than village impulses, greater than city demands, greater than state dreams or ambitions.”

In other words, Mount Rushmore stands as a tribute not only to four visionary leaders, but also to anyone who looks to see the deeper message carved into that mountain.The dusty, unemployed miners who showed up for $1.25/hour in the Great Depression, may have originally been drawn by the paycheck, but quickly bought into the spirit of the challenge. Workmen who hung suspended “face to face” from the granite carving relied on each other to come down safely at the end of each day. (Surprisingly, there were no deaths and few injuries, despite the use of heavy equipment and dynamite during those 14 years!) Mount Rushmore is proof that anyone can achieve great things when they commit to a noble cause, inspire dedicated teams, get beyond the petty issues that derail great endeavors and are willing to persist for the long haul!

Persistence Rarely Stands Alone

Persistence doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It’s often the insightful and talented leader who provides a nudge in the right direction – who illustrates just how important our work is for the greater good. My younger son is lucky in that regard. Both he and his brother enlisted in the United States Air Force and like the good boys that they are, they made every effort to call their mom on a regular basis. When my younger son called one night he said, “You know Mom, it’s not easy pulling these 12-hour shifts. I’m pretty tired, but the thing that makes me get up and go back out there is ’cause my Chief comes along at the end of every day and thanks me personally for something he noticed I did that day. Somebody at some leadership school probably told him he had to do that, but I don’t care. It helps a lot.”

People need to know how they contribute and often, how TO contribute. They sometimes need a model to practice on before letting ’em loose on the real deal. Borglum knew he couldn’t take hordes of miners up onto that 7242 foot cliff with just a drawing in his hands and expect them to know how to transfer the image onto the stone. By developing the protractor and plumb bob apparatus, he gave them a method through which they could do what they do best to insure the most expedient and successful outcome. It’s a heck of a lot easier to persist and persevere when you have a skeleton of a support structure to guide you through the inevitable bumps in the road, or in this case, on the rock.

A Result to be Proud of

Persistence thrives in an environment where the end result is something folks can be proud of. Regardless of the work at hand, everyone shares in pride of ownership with a job well done. Borglum’s 400 miners built roads, constructed buildings, generated power, took measurements and sharpened thousands of bits for the pneumatic drills. One driller, Norman “Happy” Anderson said, “I put the curl in Lincoln’s beard, the part in Teddy’s hair and the twinkle in Washington’s eye. It still gives me a thrill to look at it.” And how thrilling it is also for the families who now point proudly to their relative’s historic contribution.

Achievements need not be historic to inspire great surges of energy, enthusiasm, commitment and perseverance. It does, however, require a tangible outcome – something that’s quantifiable that folks can set their eyes upon or wrap their arms around. The worst damage we could ever do is to lead them through the process and then abruptly yank away the reward – that pride of ownership – by saying, “This was just a test to see if you could really do it.” Or “We now know the process works, but sorry to say, we won’t ever be able to implement it.”

I’m sure there will be other national monuments, historic treasures or cultural wonders that will inspire a similar sense of aw as I felt at Mount Rushmore. You know the drill – you make the drive, pay the admission and snap the photos. It’s easy to stand and admire the end result and overlook the fact that the people who toiled to construct such marvels weren’t much different than you or I. They possessed very similar human failings and faced challenges just as regularly as we do. They had to overcome obstacles, foul moods, bad bosses and poor health. Yet, look at what they were able to do! I hope when you drive through the beautiful Black Hills of South Dakota and look up at the four famous faces of Mount Rushmore, you leave with the knowledge that anything is possible!