Great leaders: Are personal crucibles a prerequisite?

I’ve been reading the book Strengths Finder 2.0, by Tom Rath.  Like one of my favorite business books, First, Break all the Rules  by Curt Coffman and Markus Buckingham, Strengths Finders 2.0 relies on data gathered from extensive Gallup surveys to help the reader discover and understand their five (out of 34 possible) top strengths.  The author’s premise is that we gain more by concentrating on our strengths than we do trying to improve our weaknesses.

In the end, I did not find my five identified strengths terribly enlightening. The premise that we should spend more time working on maximizing our strengths – both by strengthening them and by maximizing how often we use them – and less time improving our weaknesses, however, resonated with a couple other things I have been thinking about recently:

  1. Performance evaluations: I think we spend too much time pointing out weaknesses and developing improvement action plans when we do annual employee evaluations. I would like to see people figuring out what went really well, why, and how we can set things up to realize similar successes in the future. That is, performance evaluation discussions should dominantly be about doing more of what we do best and not about trying to be a little bit better at what we do poorly.  But then I get this nagging feeling that weaknesses are important to. Weaknesses make us blind to entire pathways of opportunity. Weakness make us fail to connect to people who think drastically different than we do.  If all we did was capitalize on our strengths, we would reach a certain level of success quickly, but to transcend to the next level, I think, requires an understanding and embracing of our weaknesses.
  2. Great leaders:  All the great leaders in  Bill George’s book, True North, went through at least one particularly difficult and personally challenging life-changing event on their path to becoming great leaders.  George’s belief is that it is through life’s experiences that we discover our true north, our purpose and our reason for leading.  Author Rajeev Peshawaria takes a similar approach in another book I enjoyed, Too Many Bosses, Too Few Leaders. While reading these books, I  began to ponder: do all leaders need what George calls a “crucible” to be successful? If you do not have a life-changing event of tragic proportions, does that mean you cannot be a great leader? What exactly is the role of the crucible? Is there something else going on besides finding a passion to lead for a particular purpose?

I did not initially see how these two topics relate, although I have now come to think of the purpose of the crucible as the opening up and revealing a part of yourself that was previously unknown. George and Peshawaria’s main point is that crucibles give leaders a deep, personal drive that motivates themselves and others.  To this, I agree.  Yet, I think there is something more.   What crucibles also do is sort of complete the package. Crucibles make potential leaders more rounded and complete in part by exposing their weaknesses and vulnerabilities.  In revealing a sense of purpose, crucibles peel back the onion and uncover hidden parts of people’s psyches.  What used to be personal blindspots become irresistible areas of development and opportunity.   They often reveal a side of us we never knew we had – perhaps even a side we considered not only a weakness, but irrelevant.

The best leaders know not only their strengths, but also their weaknesses. They organize their primary roles to take best advantage of their strengths while partnering with others in their areas of weakness.  They know that their weaknesses represent potential blindspots that, if ignored, hamper their ability to lead.  They also know to not only work with, but to value people that are strong where they themselves, are weak.

George’s crucibles can help bring this clear sense of being incomplete, of seeing not only the value of our strengths, but the value of our weaknesses, as well.  This awareness helps us develop those weaknesses and to find others around us to support our weaknesses while fostering a strong drive to develop and accomplish something meaningful.

Truly understanding ourselves is key to recognizing what our true strengths are. It helps us realize in what areas of work we are likely to excel. Truly understanding ourselves is also key to understanding our weaknesses and what aspects of our work we need to pay particular attention to and allow others to help us with.  It helps us find opportunities we would otherwise be blind to.  Understanding our strengths, supporting our weaknesses: this is beginning to sound like my paragraph on performance evaluations, yet it derived from studying a group of great leaders and their struggles.

Which  brings us back to Strengths Finder 2.0. Yes, in terms of performance output per energy spent,  maximizing our strengths is generally going to be more rewarding  than improving our weaknesses.  But that is not the whole story. It is the knowledge of our weaknesses, our real ownership of them, that allows an additional level of growth that takes us from being good leaders to potentially great leaders.  Crucibles not only directly confront us with our weaknesses, they often expose a part of ourselves that we didn’t know we had.  Sometimes this part of ourselves ends up being a weakness that perhaps is not quite as weak as we thought.  We begin to appreciate the value of our weaknesses. That is, we are forced to re-classify what we may have previously cast off as not very important or useful, as something not only useful, but valuable.  The very act of discovery both increases our own abilities in our areas of weakness and helps us to appreciate and value others whose strengths are our weaknesses.  People that we might otherwise have not valued, we begin to see as key contributors to our mission. We begin to value, rather than shun, people who think differently from us.  I believe these results are what transform George’s (and our own) generally good leaders into great leaders.

So, do you need a crucible to be a great leader? Perhaps not, but you do need to understand who you are, why you are, what you do well, and what values those different from you bring.  A crucible is just a convenient, if sometimes painful, way to get that.

Fifteen years ago, Scot took a personality test and was most shocked not by his resulting personality type, but at one particular type that he clearly was not.  He was amazed there really were people – both functional and successful – that were really this type. Today, he finds  exploring that part of his own personality and working with others of that type, very rewarding and a key to working his way to being at least a good leader.

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Recognizing our anxieties

I was mowing my lawn the other day, lost in my own thoughts as I usually am when mowing the lawn, when I saw someone I didn’t know walking by.  I saw him watching me and I found myself thinking he’s probably wondering why I am mowing in such an inefficient pattern.  I wonder if I could do this better. It looks like it is about to storm at any moment, so I am trying to cover as much ground as I can before it starts to pour. Yes, my pattern is inefficient with respect to completing the lawn, but it is efficient with respect to getting more area mowed in a short amount of time….

And then I had to stop and laugh when I realized the huge projection I had just made of my own needs and insecurities onto this random passerby. This stranger gave me no indication that he really was thinking about my inefficient mowing strategy. That was entirely my own projection. There are many things I could have thought, but didn’t:

He’s probably hoping he gets back home in time before the rain starts.

He’s probably glad he got his lawn mowed yesterday when it was dry.

He’s probably wondering if I am going to continue mowing even when the downpour starts.

Isn’t that a neighbor? Hi.

and so on. Yet I didn’t think any of those things, I thought about my inefficiency, clearly indicating my own focus and hangups.


If the passerby had stopped to talk while I was still projecting, I might have offered a defense of why my apparent inefficient mowing strategy really was actually the most efficient thing I could be doing at that time. I might have said this even though the odds are this thought wasn’t even close to being on his mind.

These assumptions and projections fill our lives and flavor our communications with people all the time.  Listen for them in yourself and in those you work with.  Understanding these assumptions can help you correct them in yourself to be more open to what others really have to say. They also illustrate the nature of the lenses you have on the world. What is important to you? How do you see and judge yourself?

By listening for these assumptions and projections in others, you can tailor your words to both address their needs and get your point across in an easier way. When you find someone being defensive when you approach them about something, they are probably projecting their own anxieties on you. If you listen to what they are, you can better address them while adjusting your approach to get your issue in the mix, as well.

Efficiency, as the vignette above demonstrates, is important to Scot. He is naturally keenly aware of time and does not like to see it wasted. While this fixation has some generally good consequences, it can also hamper his ability to spend a bit more time to explore a different path, get people settled, or discuss how people feel about a given action. Luckily, there are both (and more) types in the world for us all to learn from. And occasionally, Scot even remembers taking the time to do these things can actually end up being more efficient in the end than not doing them.

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Breaking projects into tasks

I was been feeling a bit unmotivated at work a while back until I realized one reason why. I took (yet another) look at my task list and found most of the remaining items were not tasks, but projects. They were projects that would take multiple hours to complete and in many cases weren’t clearly defined as to their final results. What were these projects supposed to produce? How would I know when they were done? How would I start them?  No wonder I didn’t feel motivated. People don’t do projects; they do tasks. When I looked at this task list I saw vague, undefined projects that had no defined end and no defined place to start. They represented hours of work when I rarely have consecutive hours I can spend in once place to spend on one project.

So, I picked an item of my list and asked myself what I needed to do to start on it. In this particular case, the answer was to locate an old version of a similar document I had to write, take a look at it, and decide how I wanted to change it for the new document I had to write this time.

A colleague and I regularly teach this trick in a task management class we lead, and it’s standard course in any Getting Things Done like approach: always start and stop a project by noting your next task.  Doing so always gives you a concrete place to start when you pick the project up.   I shouldn’t have had to remind myself to do this, but at least I’m glad I eventually remembered.  A good reminder for myself, but also good to keep in mind when people you work with are not making the progress you expect. Maybe they don’t know where they are headed or maybe they don’t know how to get started.  There are both easy things to fix once you are aware of what to look for.

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Who are you?

Who are you, if not your job or profession?  I asked myself this question recently, and didn’t have an immediate answer.  It’s easy to say I am an astronomer, or I am my job title, but what am I besides my job?  What are you?

I’m sure for some people, this is an easy question to answer, but for others like me (an enneagram 3) who tend to identify themselves with what they do, it’s not as easy.  Sure, I am a son, husband, father, brother, uncle, etc., but these don’t define me.  They don’t make me me – with the possible technical exception of being a son, of course. :)

I am an adventurer.  Yes, but no. I like discovering new things and I am usually up for an adventure, but I don’t really live for it.  What else could I be?

I am an expert.  No that’s both too arrogant and inaccurate. I have too many interests to really be an expert in any/many of them and although I want to learn how things work, I don’t feel I have to be an expert in them, so that’s not right.

I am an observer. There’s some truth in that, and not just as an astronomer, but it sounds too passive. I like watching things and noting how things work, but I don’t want to just watch things happen, so I need a more active description.

I an optimist. That’s close, but I don’t go through life looking for things to be optimistic about.  I believe we can often make events good simply by choosing them to be so while other times, we can extract good from an otherwise bad event by studying it and working to do so.  So, optimism is more of a tactic than a strategy for me.

I am an explorer. OK, that’s sounding better.  It describes my interest in science and astronomy and includes key applicable traits of being an adventurer and an observer.  I explore to understand how things (including organizations and people) work. I explore to learn how to make them work better; how to use them to do other things; and sometimes simply just to understand them.  In the process of exploration, I’ll often take something I know and look at it from a different angle or do it in a different way. All this fits with being an explorer; it is,  at least, the best I’ve come up with so far.

Beyond my attempts to peel back my own onion layers, what’s my point here? That each of us is more than our jobs and our professions and that by understanding both ourselves and our colleagues better, by understanding who we are besides what we do, we can better work with each other to create better environments for people to live and work to their potential.

So, who are you? And who are your colleagues? Are you working to help give them what they need to be themselves? Are you creating an environment where each of you can get the most return out of being who you are?  Do your colleagues know who you are so they can do the same for you?

Scot’s been suffering from jetlag recently and this post arose as a result. He hopes, however, it still makes some sense and he wishes you all, whoever you are, a happy holiday and a great 2015.

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Learning from an amygdala hijack

Last week I was hijacked.

By my amygdala.

I should have known better. I do know better. But last week, I didn’t prevent it when I could have and boom – I was hijacked by my amygdala.  An amygdala hijack (google the web for lots more on the subject) basically occurs when your adrenaline increases and you find yourself reacting in a far more emotional way than the situation warrants.  It is usually a sign of feeling threatened resulting in your amygdala kicking in to help you protect yourself. The result, at least in our modern world where we are more often confronted by an aggressive colleague rather than a saber-tooth tiger, is often an overreaction that can  cause more trouble and more long-lasting damage than the initial situation itself.

The key to avoiding the amygdala hijack is to see it coming and stop it before it stops you. Listen to your feelings and ask yourself why you are feeling the way you are. In most cases, you can make yourself realize that you feel threatened in some way that probably wasn’t intended and you can work more calmly and more systematically to address the issue rather than jumping immediately and aggressively into fight or flight mode.  If you know what your hot buttons are, you can usually identify them as the cause for your high emotions and can then cancel the amygdala’s red alert and act more rationally.

Image of a person probably rightfully under an amygdala hijack courtesy of

Alas, in one particular instance last week, I did none of this. I felt threatened and I attacked back.  Luckily, the “threat maker” stopped and took control of the situation, allowing me to see the hijacking that was going on and stop it.  In the end, I thanked my colleague for taking the time to do so, but I wished I had stopped it myself.  So, what happened?

I had earlier received an email I did not like from this colleague.  I felt she (or maybe it was a he? 😉 ) was threatening my team and telling me what I was allowed to do with them.  That was not of course, what she meant, as it turns out, but this is one my hot buttons, and I got angry over the email and told myself that she was not going to get away with that. No one was going to limit the progress of my team.  Who does she think she is?  It was at this point that I should have caught myself. My reaction was over and above what was appropriate for the email. And it was an email after all; they are so easily misinterpreted that you should never get mad over an email. I knew that, but I did not stop myself. I allowed the hijacking to begin.  Seeing my hostile reaction, I should have stopped myself right there and asked myself what else my colleague could have meant in her email. If I were giving her the benefit of the doubt, what was she trying to tell me?  With this framework in mind, I should have talked to her at the next opportunity to see what she really meant. If necessary, I could calmly indentify my fears and help her understand the performance and independence of my team are important to me, but that probably would not have been necessary; she was not threatening me or my team at all, but I didn’t see that. I was being hijacked.

So, the next day when our paths crossed in the hall, I was still annoyed at this email so when she asked me what I thought about it, I got aggressive.  It briefly escalated from there as I told her that she couldn’t tell me how to run my team, etc., until she took a breath and started a sentence with something like “Scot, I’m feeling a little bit … now” and started to tell me how she was feeling about our interaction.  The adrenaline was still pumping in me (I could feel my heart beating), so I wasted no time in telling her how I was feeling, as well.  It wasn’t nice, but acknowledging why I was feeling angry started my hijack recovery process. It was the step I should have taken when I got that earlier email.  (And in hindsight, my colleague’s “I feel” statement seems like a very good way to respond to an amygdala hijack in someone else.)  I started to calm down and realize what just happened.  I began to realize why I was upset and how that was not really a result of anything my colleague had actually said or done.  I was able to calm down and listen and talk to my colleague in the way I normally do to solve problems for mutual benefit. After a few more moments, we got to the core of the issue and reached a good agreement.  Where only a few moments ago, I was ready to go to battle with this person, I now felt we had formed a successful partnership in understanding and meeting our mutual needs.

What a great outcome that I would have missed out on completely had my colleague not helped me tame my amygdala. I am grateful to her for doing so and I made a note to myself to pay more attention to these situations in the future. Watch my emotions, watch where they are coming from, and when I feel that rush of adrenaline when there isn’t a wild animal leaping towards me, take a step back and address the issue calmly.

As an enneagram 3, being in touch with his emotions is not one of Scot’s natural strengths. Being so, however, has great benefits both personally and professionally, so it is an area he constantly works to improve, with some success and the occasional setback.

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So, I finished my MBA. Was it worth it?


22 months and countless hours later, I finished my MBA program from the Shidler College of Business at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. It was probably more work than I expected, but I also got more out of it than I expected. I could have put in less effort and still completed the degree, but as with anything in life, you tend to get what you put into it and putting in more effort than the minimum needed, I think, was highly worthwhile. What I expected from this program was to learn how business is done, how managers manage, and how leaders lead out in the “real world” in ways that I could apply to the business of astronomy.

The program certainly did all this, but there was a lot more. I learned many practical things about personal finance including stocks, bonds, negotiation tactics and strategies that were only obvious after I discovered them, and a bunch of other stuff I figured I should learn about some day, but never did.  I even now own a genuine financial calculator, although it is RPN, so I’m not a total sellout :).  Perhaps, even more importantly, I learned about myself – I learned more about who I am, why I am the way I am, and what I want to do with my leadership and management initiatives.

For one of my last classes, I ended up defining the purpose of my leadership as being:

…to combine the data-based, scientific method of problem solving with
the human elements of trust, respect, and opportunity for all in order to form truly healthy teams and organizations.

I may still need some work on this purpose, but I think it’s a pretty good place to start. I want to help create, vibrant, healthy organizations in astronomy, specifically working to set up environments that allow people to perform at their best, whether they be scientific, technical, administrative, or other support staff. Similarly, I enjoyed bringing scientific rigor to my co-MBA students who worked in all kinds of non-profit and for-profit industries and were not well-versed in the scientific method. There is a lot of potential fulfilment in this line of work as well. Bringing the best organizational aspects of the rest of the world to astronomy, and the best analytic approach of astronomy to the rest of the  world. This purpose helps me understand the two worlds I try to live in: the scientific and the professional management/leadership worlds.

Shidler DLEMBA Class of 2014

And finally, I spent 22 months collaboratively and intensely working with 29 of the best managers and leaders in Hawaii. These people, my co-students, come from all backgrounds and fields, but shared this one crazy thing in common: a desire to learn more about how to run, manage and lead better organizations so strong that they agreed to give up their evenings and weekends to sit in front of their computers and join forces with each other to complete this program. While I may have been able to complete this program without them, it would not have been nearly as much fun or rewarding. I learned from each of their stories and each of their industries, as much or more as I learned from the faculty. They are all on my personal Board of Directors.


Another sign of Scot’s dual interest in astronomy and effective management and leadership is portrayed through Myers Briggs type assessments which, depending on when he takes the test, result in either INTJ (code-named “Scientist”) or ENTJ (code-named “Manger/Leader”).  This whole astronomy management thing is starting to make sense.

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The role of social media in astronomy

I’ve been pondering what role social media should play in an observatory’s outreach and marketing efforts.

If you exist and serve customers, people expect you to have a web site. These days, they also expect you to have a social media presence as well. At a minimum, astronomy facilities must have an online social media presence to publish their latest news bits, press releases, pretty pictures and so on. This is the bare minimum we must do. Additionally, some observatories also engage users in contests for telescope time, tours of the facility,and other such promotions. These additional efforts offer some slightly enhanced return, but there is still more to be gained. Social media offers us an opportunity to develop messages that target specific stakeholders.  The interconnected social aspect of these media streams will help us naturally deliver targeted messages to the right groups.  We can also therefore targeted advocacy for the observatory depending on what the current needs are. This apporoach can help activate passive stakeholders and help neutral stakeholders become more vocal advocates.

Social media can also be used to gather public opinion. What are people saying about us? Which of our messages are they sharing? This information can provide valuable feedback to evaluate our general performance, reputation, and the effects of our communications.

While these additional considerations offer even more return than the basic press release approach, there are even larger gains to be had from a fully developed social media program. The real gains from social media come from taking advantage of the unique  power of social media – the social aspect of it.

The real power of Social Media lies in tapping into its unique social networking aspect.  Image from

The real power of Social Media lies in tapping into its unique social networking aspect. Image from

People turn to social media not primarily to get news from companies and organizations that interest them, but to engage socially with people and develop relationships with both old and new friends1. The next step in gaining from social media is to find ways to help people connect with each other that provide a benefit to your organization. Following an article I recently read in the Harvard Business Review by Moktaj Jan Piskorski (Social Strategies that Work, November 2011), firms can extract more from social media by developing strategies that get them something of value by helping people build or establish their social connections if they do some free work for the firm. For example, a credit card company might offer elite customers a discount shopping day at a store of their choice with the amount of the discount dependent on how many friends (with the same kind of credit card, of course) the customer gets to shop along. In this case, the company would be reducing their customer recruitment costs and increasing sales by offering users the chance to connect with old and new friends by getting them to recruit new customers. The elite customers get something of value (a discount) and an excuse to make new and old contacts while they recruit more people to join them for their day of shopping.

So, how does this model apply to astronomy? What social connections can we offer our community that will inspire them to do something of value for us?

The GLORIA project, is one example. The GLORIA team is building a network of small telescopes equipped with useful instrumentation and offering them free to the public. By investing in the hardware and developing communities of users with scientific interests in using this hardware, GLORIA gets science output for free. They don’t have to hire any researchers, write any observing proposals, or pay any page charges. They actually get the public to do work (deliver science) for free. GLORIA gets free labor; its online users get access to hardware and a community to explore with. GLORIA gets the power of social networking.

How can we tap in this potential to both increase the number of engaged users and get free labor in the process? First, we need to find ways to attract and motivate users. What do people want? What need besides providing basic information can we fulfill? Second, we need to encourage people to form identities within our platform. Allowing users to take on specific roles engages them more fully and promotes a real interactive community. Third, we need to channel their attention to tasks we want done. Maybe it’s analyzing data, measuring performance metrics, developing growth plans or strategic visions, advocating or fund-raising, or who knows what else. Next, we need to incentivize users to do these tasks – using the social needs we identified earlier. We can provide recognition for achievement, methods to bring in new friends and contacts, and/or the sense of being involved in the thrill of scientific discovery, for example. All these things could be used to fill users’ needs and incetivize them to do the desired tasks. Finally, we need to monitor the results, being careful to resist attempting to control them completely. Sometimes it may be best to let the community evolve, even if it ends up on a different path than we originally intended.

Any ideas on what we try first?

1Although I did recently attend an excellent seminar on social media which said people actually DO get their news from social media. However, they don’t go looking for news; they expect news to find them. That is, they expect their social network to provide the news that is important to them. So, organizations who want to get their news out still ought to be thinking about how to create a social network that will naturally propogate its news to those most interested in receiving it.

Scot is not a terribly active social media user, but he does see the significant potential in it for many companies and yes, even observatories. He is still taking classes and learning lots of other real world techniques that can be applied to improve the business and management of astronomy – if only he had more time to write about and practice them! You can follow his occasional posts on twitter via @GScot.

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Give yourself time to think

Why is it we schedule time for meetings, but not time for thinking?

Take a look at your calendar. If it’s like mine used to be, it’s a series of scheduled meetings with some blank space in between for more meetings to eventually be scheduled.  As I said in a previous post, meetings are (or at least should be) real work, but there is some work you sometimes have to do by yourself.  Like thinking, for one.  We scheduled time for meetings, we sometimes schedule time for doing, but we rarely schedule time for thinking.

As a result, I now look at my calendar a little bit differently. Instead of viewing it as a list of meetings and times available for meetings not yet scheduled, I now directly schedule in times for doing and thinking along with times for meetings.  I regularly block off 1.5 days a week for working – with no meetings. I also schedule an hour a day for thinking.  This time sometimes ends up being used for doing, but I do often use it for thinking.  I try to use the time to think about how I might apply some business world technique or strategy to astronomy.  I think about our observatory’s strategic needs and how we might better address and fulfill them.  I think about our competitive environment and how we might better connect with our stakeholders.  More often than not, these hours result in some obvious, quick action items that result in making progress on long term objectives that would not normally see the light of day in a calendar filled with meetings and slots for potential meetings.

I still don’t have enough time for doing as I would like, but these brief thinking sessions help my doing time be more productive and they help me better formulate tasks I end up delegating, helping them both start off on the right foot and ultimately contribute to a larger strategic goal.

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