Four Key Decisions That Shape Your Character

Charisma may be useful in attracting a following, but it is largely useless when it comes to achieving a long term positive impact on the people and organizations we lead. For this, we need character. Effective leadership is an inside-out job.

The older I get, the more this quote from one of my mentors, Michael Hyatt reveals itself in everyday experience. As leaders (we are all leaders in some area of our lives), our influence is shaped by our character, which, in turn, is formed over time by our daily choices. The fact is, who we become is not a product of the milestone moments in our lives as much as the small, seemingly inconsequential decisions we make every day.

The good news is that, unlike personality, which is fixed at birth, your character can be developed through the intentional decisions you make about how you spend your time. If you are consistent in managing them, these daily decisions become powerful forces that will encourage you to live with more passion, purpose and influence. Here are four to consider:

Decision #1: The content you consume.
How much news do you expose yourself to every day?
What are you reading and how often?
What do you listen to while driving?
How you answer questions like these says a lot about how intentional you are in developing your character. Author and speaker Matthew Kelly tells his audiences, “You show me what you’re reading and I’ll tell you what sort of person you are. If you give me a list of the books you read last year I can tell you what happened in your life. Even better, you give me a list of the books you’re going to read in the next 12 months and I will tell you what will happen in your life in the coming year.”
That’s a bold prediction, but his message rings clear: Your character is shaped by what you allow to occupy your mind every day. I recall a successful entrepreneur telling me that he largely ignores the news because, if he didn’t, he would be too fearful to launch new business ventures. Remember, regardless of which side of the political spectrum you’re on, both Fox News and MSNBC do not exist to deliver news; their goal is to achieve ratings, which means their mission is keeping you glued to the TV. Over time, the negativity, alarmism, and agenda-driven drama affects us, injecting doubt, worry and passivity that, over time, can hijack our dreams and stifle our initiative. While I’m not suggesting we ignore what’s going on in the world, I strongly believe we need to set boundaries not only on the news we watch, but on all the content we consume every day–podcasts, blogs, streaming video, social media, etc.

Decision #2: The friendships you maintain.
Personal development icon Jim Rohn famously said that we are the average of the five people we spend the most time with. Although we are often called through our work and personal lives to minister to many different types of people, those we choose as our closest friends and confidants will have a disproportionate influence on who we become, so we must choose them wisely. If you want to have a great marriage, for example, hang out with people with strong marriages. If you’re looking to become healthy and fit, cultivate friendships with people who practice good nutrition and exercise habits. On the other hand, avoid making close friends with people who exhibit the traits you want to avoid. Remember, birds of a feather really do flock together.

Decision #3: The beliefs you cultivate.
It’s been said that our actions ultimately reflect our beliefs. If you believe, for example, that human life is the result of random, meaningless chance verses the product of a loving, personal God who created you for a purpose, then chances are this belief will, at some point, play out in your life. Your world view–the fundamental beliefs you have about ultimate reality–matters, and every world view attempts to answer these four questions:
>Origin: How did I get here?
>Meaning: What is the ultimate meaning of my life?
>Morality: How should I live? Is there a right and wrong, and what is the difference?
>Destiny: What will happen when I die?
In a culture shaped by superficiality, these questions may seem over-the-top, but your capacity to formulate clear, confident answers to each of these will profoundly influence the breadth and depth of the person you become.

Decision #4: The habits you develop.
In his book, Make Today Count, leadership expert John Maxwell makes a provocative claim. He writes:

If I could come to your house and spend just one day with you, I would be able to tell whether or not you will be successful. You could pick the day. If I got up with you in the morning and went through the day with you, watching you for 24 hours, I could tell in what direction your life is headed.

According to John, when he shares this at conferences, he always gets a strong reaction. Some people are surprised and get defensive because they think he would be making a snap judgment about them. Others, however, are intrigued and want to know why he would make such a statement. As John points out, our character isn’t something that suddenly manifests itself in someone’s life. It is a process; every day is merely preparation for the next, and our habits–the simple, repeatable actions we consistently take over time–ultimately determine who we become. As John famously says, “You will never change anything in your life until you change something you do daily.” So what are your habits preparing you for, and is it aligned with where you truly want to go?

Of all the forces shaping the quality and impact of your life, your character stands alone. No one wants to reach the end of their life and feel regret over squandered opportunities and broken relationships, yet sadly, it will be the destination of choice for so many. The difference between experiencing regret verses a deep satisfaction with life, I believe, lies in the importance you attach to each of these life-shaping, character-defining decisions.

Question: Which of these decision areas do you feel confident you have made? Which ones have challenged you? What do you plan to do about it? I’d love to hear your comments!

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The #1 Obstacle to Becoming a Good Listener

Recently, the biggest blunder in the 90-year history of the Oscars took place when the wrong envelope for Best Picture was given to presenter Warren Beatty, resulting in an unforgettably embarrassing moment for the entire Academy of Motion Pictures dubbed “Envelopegate.”

How could such a simple task result in such a monumental oversight? After all, this wasn’t the county fair beauty pageant; it was the Academy Awards!

According to reports, Brian Cullinan of Pricewaterhouse Coopers, the accounting firm responsible for administering the winning Oscar entries, was posting on Twitter throughout the show while simultaneously supervising the distribution of envelopes, tweeting repeatedly just moments before he mistakenly handed Beatty the back up Best Actress envelope instead of the Best Picture envelope.

But as author and leadership consultant Bill Zipp notes, “Let’s not be so quick to judge this distracted accountant. We multitask many times a day and commit similar errors repeatedly. Just not in front of 37 million viewers.”

I’ve been sharing in recent posts about the critical role that listening plays in presenting the best version of ourselves. Now, perhaps more than any other time in history, the obstacles that stand in our way to fully engaging with each other are mounting, thanks to the growing number of distractions.

For me, the problem isn’t so much the distractions themselves but our tendency to respond to them by embracing what psychologists call “the myth of multitasking.”

According to neurological research, our brain cannot complete multiple tasks simultaneously; instead, it switches back and forth from each task, costing valuable time, productivity, and energy in the process. As mindfulness expert Nancy Napier puts it, “Each time we move from hearing music to writing a text to talking to someone, there is a stop/start process that goes on in the brain.”

In other words, stop deluding yourself into believing you can reply to that email while listening to your mom on the phone, study your Bible while watching Sports Center, or glance at that text while you’re driving home from work. You can’t do it–at least not mindfully, and it only robs you of your time, productivity, and often much more. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Commission, distracted driving was identified as a factor in at least 10 percent of all fatalities and 18 percent of all crashes overall.

If you still think you’re one of those outliers who can multitask, Nancy suggests a simple test:

Draw two horizontal lines on a piece of paper.
Now, time yourself as you carry out the two tasks that follow:
On the first line, write: “I am a great multitasker.”
On the second line, write out the numbers 1-20 sequentially, like those below:
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20
How much time did it take to do the two tasks? Usually it’s about 20 seconds.

Now, let’s multitask.
Draw two more horizontal lines.
This time, again while timing yourself, write a letter on one line, and then a number on the line below, then the next letter in the sentence on the upper line, and then the next number in the sequence on the lower line, following the sequences while changing from line to line. In other words, you write the letter “I” and then the number “1” and then the letter “a” and then the number “2” and so on, until you complete both lines.

Chances are it took you at least twice as long to complete round #2 vs. the first round because you had to pause and think before getting the right letter and number sequence. This is exactly what happens when you try to multitask: Your brain actually has to take the time to switch between tasks while we mistakenly think we’re giving equal attention to both simultaneously.

If you want to truly develop yourself as a genuine, empathic listener with the discipline and humility to give others the gift of your undivided attention and presence, make the decision today that you won’t fall for the myth of multitasking. Not only will it help you become the best version of you, it could save your life!

How did you on the multitasking test? What does it reveal about your ability to focus on more than one thing at a time? Finally, how would you assess yourself in your ability to deal with distractions? Are you getting better, staying the same, or getting worse?

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Be a Hospitalian To Present the Best Version of YOU

In his popular TED Talk, “Be a Hospitalian,” Bobby Stuckey, owner of the renowned Frasca restaurant in Boulder, Colorado, shares a humorous holiday story of trying to please one of his relatives while hosting Thanksgiving dinner:

 

Bobby’s talk highlights the critical difference between service (“What you do for someone”) and hospitality (“Changing how they feel”). His point: From serving customers in a 5-Star restaurant to hosting your neighbors for a backyard barbecue — while excellent service is important, authentic hospitality is the real difference-maker.

As many of us prepare to spend the Easter holidays with family, Bobby’s message serves as a great reminder. There’s bound to be someone you’ll encounter who rubs you the wrong way…  be it that crazy uncle, know-it-all brother-in-law, or your sister’s boyfriend who drives you nuts. Being a “hospitalian” means presenting the best version of yourself, or, as Bobby says, “looking out instead of looking in.” It’s thinking of yourself less and putting others first, even those who irritate us.

So during this Easter holiday, take a cue from Bobby: Before the craziness begins, put aside your need for affirmation and gratitude and commit to becoming a “hospitalian.”

And if, at any point over the holidays, you’re tempted to slip back into the lesser version of yourself, get out your Bible, take a deep breath and let the true message of Easter inspire you:

Then He said to them, “Thus it is written, and thus it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead the third day, and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. And you are witnesses of these things.” (Luke 24:46-48)

What was your experience celebrating Easter with family growing up? Was there tension or peace? How has that affected your approach to the celebrating holidays and family functions? How can Bobby Stuckey’s message of hospitality help you enjoy the coming days?

This post has been adapted from my previous post for the Christmas holiday.

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Four Keys to Becoming a Better Listener

In a recent post, I shared a statement from a friend that has become a personal affirmation:

I will be where I am….wherever I am.

For me, presence starts with what Emotional Intelligence expert Dr. Travis Bradberry calls “the art of listening.” Isn’t it interesting that he refers to listening, something that seems as basic to human functioning as breathing or swallowing, as an art? Dr. Bradberry’s description underscores the fact that listening goes way beyond merely hearing. Indeed as he puts it in his best selling book, Emotional Intelligence 2.0:

Listening isn’t just about hearing words; it’s also about listening to the tone, speed, and volume of the voice. What is being said? Anything not being said? What hidden messages exist below the surface?

So… why is it so hard to listen?

As I shared in an earlier post on conversation skills, the average person can speak at a rate of approximately 225 words per minute, but we can listen at up to 500 words per minute. Our minds tend to fill in the other 275 words (a huge struggle for me!) which is precisely why it takes energy and concentration to be attentive during a conversation.

“Just try to be a better listener.”

I can think of so many times, after reading an article or listening to a podcast on the importance of listening, when I’ve resolved to “just try harder,” only to find that I forgot the names of the couple I was introduced to at church on Sunday after zoning out during the sermon as I thought about my upcoming busy week.

The fact is, simply trying harder rarely works; listening is a skill and, like any other skill, it requires discipline, intentionality and resolve to improve. As public radio host and TED Talk speaker Celeste Headlee notes:

It takes effort and energy to actually pay attention to someone. But if you can’t do that, you’re not in a conversation — you’re just two people shouting out barely-related sentences in the same place.

In my quest to become a better listener (I do feel like I am slowly making progress!), I’ve discovered a few key behaviors that have a disproportionate influence on my success . Here are four:

1) Maintain eye contact.
When I started my first sales job out of college, selling copiers in Grand Rapids, my manager used to remind me, “You’ll never sell anything to anyone if they won’t first sit down at your desk and look you in the eye.” He was right; it was an insight that never failed to prove itself, whether I was selling copiers, cars, or concepts. Indeed, the desire for genuine communication demands eye contact. It signals to the other person that they have your full attention.

I recall shopping for furniture with my wife shortly after we got married. At the first store we shopped, I distinctly remember the salesperson rarely looking at my wife, even though she was the main decision maker. I also recall that we didn’t buy anything there.

Also, watch your posture–make sure it is open and inviting, and demonstrate your attention by smiling and nodding occasionally. This is especially important if you’re in a conversation with someone you know well and are comfortable with, like your spouse or sibling, where you may be tempted to grab your phone or laptop.

2) Give others the space to speak.
As Stephen Covey points out in his iconic book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, “Most of us don’t listen with the intent to understand, but with the intent to reply.” Often, especially in a heated conversation (think politics or sports), there’s often an irresistible temptation to either finish someone’s sentence or respond before they’re done speaking. What’s more, it’s modeled every evening on Fox News, CNN and countless other news and talk shows that thrive on conflict and confrontation. The best way to avoid this obnoxious behavior is to train yourself to wait until someone is completely finished speaking, even if there’s a few seconds of space before you reply.

3) Give the speaker frequent feedback.
One of the best tools I learned in an excellent training session at Northwestern Michigan College is the skill of paraphrasing, or reflecting back on what the customer tells you. I recall sharing the highlights of a study in France that showed that restaurant servers who repeated their customer’s food orders to their satisfaction received up to 25% higher tips than those who simply recorded the order.

Also, demonstrate to the speaker that you understand and are interested by their responses. Examples like “You must have been angry,” “What a difficult ordeal for you,” and “How were you feeling?” show genuine interest and concern.

4) Embrace mindfulness.
As a Christian, I distanced myself from even considering the practice of mindfulness, writing it off as a product of new age, eastern mysticism. Then a Christian friend of mine–a trained therapist–shared with me the positive influence of simple mindfulness behaviors in everything from relieving depression to improving sleep in his patients. As I researched it further, I discovered that mindfulness is simply the act of paying attention and living in the present moment. In fact, according to Psychology Today, mindfulness is “a state of active, open attention on the present.”

In our increasingly distracted culture, most people’s minds wander: When they’re at work, they daydream about being on vacation; when on vacation, they worry about work piling up on their desks. They dwell on invasive memories of the past and obsess about what may or may not happen in the future. Being mindful means concentrating your attention and awareness on the present moment–in this case, on the speaker with whom you’re conversing. Research is continually revealing the tremendous benefits of mindfulness–in relieving stress, improving relationships, promoting better health, even accelerating athletic performance. (Note: There is a branch of mindfulness that centers around meditative techniques intended to empty your mind and connect to an alternate state of consciousness–that’s not what I am advocating).

BONUS: Learn to develop genuine curiosity.

Have you encountered someone who is genuinely curious? I recall hosting a neighborhood association meeting in our home when one of our guests noticed a family portrait hanging above our fireplace. Instead of merely acknowledging the photo, she inquisitively asked my wife and me about each of our children. You could tell through the tone of her voice and her persistent follow up questions that she wasn’t merely asking to be polite; she was genuinely interested in our family. She was genuinely curious–she was present. Curious people notice things others ignore, taking the focus off themselves and placing it squarely on others, adding genuine richness and life to any encounter or gathering.

Which one of these listening behaviors resonates the most with you? Which one challenges you the most? How do you feel about mindfulness? On a scale of 1 -10, how would you rate yourself in genuine curiosity? Why?

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