Nico Toscani Isn’t Walking Through That Door (aka Steven Seagal on Leadership)

When I was in college, my roommates and I were almost obsessed with a film you’ve probably never heard of:  Above the Law starring Steven Seagal (it was actually his film debut).  We picked it up at the local movie rental store on a whim.  We soon became obsessed with Seagall’s character – Nico Toscani.

Who wouldn’t love Toscani?  Born in Sicily, raised in Japan, he was a master in Aikido.  After kicking some serious behind in Vietnam as a covert operator with the CIA, Nico had become disillusioned with the Agency.  He just couldn’t do the dirty work they asked him to do.  So, he naturally moved to Chicago to become a cop. 

The movie isn’t really very different from a thousand action films.  Toscani, is the lone rebel hero – never outnumbered no matter the situation.  I remember in particular our favorite scene: 

Toscani walks into a seedy bar in a bad Chicago neighborhood and starts asking some tough questions of the local “clientele.”  Within minutes, Toscani is surrounded by a bunch of tough guys brandishing weapons.  Now, you and I know that the average man in this position gets drubbed mercilessly by the gang and most likely hospitalized or killed. 

But Nico Toscani is not an average man. 

What ensues is one of the great scenes of that movie (and dare I say in film history?)  Nico instead of getting stomped, dishes out some of the most effective Aikido moves you have ever seen.  When he is finished, every dirt bag is incapacitated and the bar is a mess.  Then Nico gets the key piece of information he was asking for.  It’s pretty obvious, Nico Toscani is above the law.

Problem solved.

Except in real life leaders aren’t above the law.  In fact, there is an iron-clad law that leaders will never rise above:  problems are not solved by lone wolves or super heroes.  In fact, the best way for a leader to solve a problem is to leverage multiple inputs from a team. 

Leaders, especially leaders in America, have been conditioned from a young age to seek the answer from “THE” expert.  It is part of the American fabric and culture.  This is why super hero films are so popular.  The world is about to end – and suddenly in flies a mutant with super powers and the world is saved.  The criminals have taken over the city?  Don’t worry, Clint Eastwood just strode into town with a Smith and Wesson .44 Magnum, and he will have this straightened out in about 2 hours.

In times of crisis do we need centralized decision-making?

Throughout my career I have seen a couple common responses from leaders when they are faced with a crisis:

1.  Get me the expert!  

 In this scenario, the leader is faced with a complicated problem; he turns to his staff and asks, “Who is the expert on problem Y?”  The staff, usually eager to get out of the room blurts out a name.  “Jones!  Jones has been the expert on problem Y for years now!”  The exasperated Boss, leans back in his chair, rubs his temples and says – “somebody get Jones in here ASAP.  The rest of you guys hit the road.”

Here’s what happens next.  Jones shows up and comparatively speaking he is an expert on Y.  But he is one guy with limited knowledge of all the other processes that touch Problem Y.  He knows next to nothing about issues X and Z.  But, he’s the expert on Y and that is what he is paid for.  He comes up with a flawed solution.  But the Boss, tired of talking about Problem Y is happy.  He implements The Jones Solution. 

It works for a short time, but unfortunately, what Jones didn’t know about issues X and Z comes back to bite him.  Soon the Boss has two new problems – problems X and Z.   And of course at the next meeting, the leader asks his staff “Who are the experts on X and Z?!”

2.  This is too important for the minions.

The second response is another common human response to limited information or challenging problems.  The leader decides he has to go it alone.  The leader finds that as he talks to his subordinates none of them have the answer.  They all kind of have a partial idea – but by and large his subordinates seem lost and overwhelmed by the enormity of the problem.

So, the leader takes a deep breath and says, “I’m going in alone.” 

After all, the Boss is smart and he has an awful lot of experience.  Why can’t he solve the toughest problems?  Isn’t that what he is paid to do?

Unfortunately, in this scenario, the Boss isn’t like Toscani.  He gets absolutely drubbed by the boys in the bar.  In other words, he makes some really bad decisions.

 The Magnificent Seven

There is another great movie you should check out.  It’s called the Magnificent Seven.  In that film, a small western town is terrorized by bandits.  They are robbed, beaten, and raped.  The townsfolk pool their resources and hire a team to help them.  They don’t go get the Pale Rider – they go and get seven of the toughest men they can find.

Then, those seven men team together, using their combined strengths to mask their individual weaknesses.  Together the seven are stronger than the bandits.  To put an almost perfect bow on this illustration, the seven hired guns actually train the defenseless townspeople to stand up for themselves.  The seven actually multiply their effectiveness by including the helpless town in “problem solving.”  The film ends with the towns people realizing they no longer need the Magnificent Seven (although it didn’t prevent Hollywood from making “The Magnificent Seven Ride Again” – look folks, no illustration is perfect).

In Times of Crisis, Devolve Power Down

In times of limited information, when you are facing a crisis or a difficult problem – resist your urge to act like Nico Toscani.  If you are facing uncertainty, that is no time for the senior leader to start making more decisions.  Exactly the opposite is true.

Difficult problems are difficult because no one person has the answer.  Instead, the crowd of people in your organization – the regularly everyday people – holds the key.  No, not a single one of them has the answer.  But, they all have a small part of the answer.  They all hold some puzzle pieces.  Some of them may have more pieces than others; some may have more ability to put those pieces together – but as a group they have the picture.

This is where the leader steps in and does the truly difficult task of leading.  He, like the Magnificent Seven, helps these towns-people solve their own problem.  He patiently guides them, trains them, and most importantly believes in them.   That is what the truly heroic leaders does, because he understands that devolved decision-making and problem-solving is really the American way.

Don’t believe me?  Check your constitution some time.  The Founding Fathers were incredibly smart.  So smart that they understood that the difficult task of governing a country was best executed at the lowest level – not in a centralized model where a few “experts” called the shots. 

The American Way of Leadership is based on a very simple truth – the wisdom of the people is better than the wisdom of the elite few who don’t hold any of the pieces to the jigsaw puzzle.

So it is with your organization.  Resist with all your strength the idea that you have the answer to your organization’s problems.  If you can actually solve the problem by yourself – it never was a tough problem to begin with.  The toughest problems require wisdom from all your team – pooled together under the tutelage of a leader. 

That is how you clean up a barroom full of bad guys.

********

Admit it – you are dying to watch the movie trailer for Above the Law:

http://youtu.be/oiQi0WvS6Sc

You know why I love you?  Because you don’t live the way other people live

Legendary!

-CJ Cheetham

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Read This Book: Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler

Darkness at Noon examines the show trials and executions conducted by Josef Stalin in the late 1930s.  The story is told through the sad eyes and sharp mind of Rubashov – a man imprisoned for crimes against the Communist Party and crimes against the state.

It is a fairly short, tightly written work consisting of the story a man restrained physically by a prison in the Soviet Union.  However, he is also restrained spiritually by guilt over his own participation in cruel communist executions and he is restrained intellectually by regret over his realization that everything he believed to be true as a communist, is actually a pack of lies.

Ultimately, it is a great story – an individual against all odds standing up the full-force and brute strength of a totalitarian regime.   A cruel, heartless communist regime resistant to any appeal to non-Marxist thought.

Is an individual a multitude of one million divided by one million or is the individual much more than that?  Do the ends justify the means – even if it means killing millions?  Is it better to be clever or decent?

These are some of the questions this loyal party member Rubashov wrestles with, all while being falsely accused of treason. 

Darkness at Noon is a masterpiece and it has the distinction of influencing Orwell’s 1984.

I originally read this book back in the 1980s and I am glad I gave it another read over the last week.  It is an important and profound book – and ultimately a sad story.  Especially when one considers how many people were murdered by Communist governments and revolutionaries, all promising a “more just world.”

I highly recommend it.

What if Apple charged 8,000 dollars for an iPad?

My wife recently picked up an iPad 3.  It’s a wonderful machine – lightweight, with an HD screen, remarkably fast, with literally millions of apps available.  But I’m not a technically smart person, so I am amazed at something quite different; namely, I am amazed at how cheaply one can buy an iPad 3. 

Depending on the options you want, you can pick up the latest version of the iPad for anywhere between 500 dollars and 800 dollars.  That is a remarkably inexpensive price for a machine that delivers incredible capability to the palm of your hand.  I can’t help but think of my first laptop – that “revolutionary” device cost me 1,600 bucks and could do very little in comparison. 

You get the idea – somehow Apple (and a lot of other companies) continues delivering better products, cheaply to the American people. 

This is not an article on the wonders of technology, but rather the indispensable and wonderful role of prices in a free market. 

Note – Apple did not deliver hand held devices because Congress mandated that they do so.  There was no joint session to discuss ways to make the prices lower for the tablet consumers.  Furthermore, there were no executive orders or campaign speeches pointing out how important computer tablets are to our productivity and competitiveness.  Similarly, the President never asked congress to buy iPads for citizens, or create a low-interest loan system for iPads, nor did he deride the huge profits that Apple is making every year selling these devices to people.

Price – the critical messenger of the economy

A free market is an amazing organism when you stop to think about it.  Every day, millions of pieces of information are transferred between producers and consumers.  Information about the availability of raw materials, the cost of production (power supply, labor costs, etc) are transmitted to producers at a staggering rate.  Furthermore, consumers send direct messages to producers as well – chiefly by indicating how much they are willing to pay for a certain good or service, i.e. what is the price the consumer is willing to pay?

Going back to our iPad example, consumers have sent a very clear message to the executives at Apple.  That message is:  we are more than willing to pay between 500 and 800 dollars for the iPad 3.  Not only that, but we consumers are willing to buy all of the iPads you can produce at that price and we consumers will also camp outside of stores and have a party waiting for you to allow us the privilege of buying your product.

Apple receives that message loud and clear.  When they get that type of reaction, Apple knows that they have created the right product and more importantly, affixed the right price.

Now let’s apply a hypothetical to the iPad 3.  Suppose tomorrow Apple decided that rather than charge 500-800 dollars per iPad – they now want to charge 5,000 to 8,000 dollars per iPad.  What would happen to Apple sales?  It is pretty obvious the sales would plummet.  People, other than the spectacularly wealthy, would not pay that kind of money for a tablet.  Consumers would send a clear message back to Apple on the subject of price.  Attention Apple: either you price the iPad lower or we no longer will buy your product. 

In fact, there is no amount of advertising or celebrity endorsements that could get any of you to pay 5,000 bucks for an IPad. 

This is true of almost all industries.  Anyone selling a good or service, must price their product to please consumers.  There is no other way in a market to get customers.  If I am selling chocolate bars and I am pricing them at 7 dollars apiece – I am not going to be making chocolate bars very long.  What Adam Smith called the “invisible hand” is not invisible at all.  Consumers are very open and honest about price and the optimum price is very visible.  It is blindingly obvious to any producer, what the acceptable price should be for any product.

Price is the great and indispensable communicator in the marketplace.

There is only one problem with all of this.  There is an organization that always wants to meddle with prices.  This organization want to fix prices, drive prices up, propagandize against prices, or artificially set prices too low or too high.  This organization wants to stop the open communication between consumer and producer.  This organization is literally jamming the communications between sellers and buyers.

Yes, you guessed it – that organization is your government.

How government help destroys accurate pricing, sends false messages in the marketplace and ultimately exacerbates the problem

Okay folks – let’s go back to the iPad 3 scenario one more time.  When last we left the scene, we had producers jacking up the price of an iPad 3 to 5,000 to 8,000 dollars per unit.  Consumers naturally were indignant.  Five grand for a tablet?  Take a hike Apple!  We are not paying that.

Under normal circumstances, Apple would get the message.  Executives would see that the sales last month were down to about zero and say “I think we need to lower the price.  People hate the price.  We need to lower the price in order to meet the expectations of our consumers.  If we keep the prices this high – no one will buy our products.”

Enter the government.  The political leaders watching this scene know the iPad 3 is a sweet machine, they also know people, aka voters, wish they could afford it.  So government does what it does best:

Government intervenes in a process it doesn’t appreciate, to distort a market it doesn’t understand, in order to get the votes of people it doesn’t really know.

So, in an amazing display of bipartisanship, the congress passes and the president signs a new law providing grants of up to 10,000 dollars to people who can’t afford iPads.  Additionally, since not everyone will be eligible for a grant – the government creates a low interest loan system, where people can get a government backed loan of up to 7,800 dollars to buy an iPad. 

Has government solved a problem?  No.  Will the price of iPads go down?  No.

People will certainly avail themselves of the “grants” and low interest loans to buy iPads.  In fact, there is so much grant money and low interest loan money available that people aren’t bothered by paying 8,000 dollars for an iPad.   Consumers have always been willing to pay 500 – 800 dollars for an iPad, but when consumer contributions combined with loans and grants from government, the new “price” people are willing to pay for an iPad is about 8,500 dollars (7,800 in grants/loans + 700 out of pocket dollars).

The Apple corporate headquarters receives this message.  Consumers, now teamed with government, are willing to pay 8,500 dollars for our product which we could have sold for 800 dollars.  Wow!  What a profit margin Apple is now enjoying thanks to the caring people in government. 

What do you suppose Apple will do with all that profit?  Yes, some will go back into the corporation to find better products to build.  But here is the real insidious part.  Now that Apple has received a clear message in the form of the government subsidized price, Apple is going to do everything possible to make the government grants/loans to buy iPads permanent and larger.  Apple is going to lobby.  Apple is going to donate to campaigns.  Whatever is necessary to keep the price of iPads artificially high with the help of Uncle Sam.

The end result is the government is spending a ridiculous amount of money (tax dollars) to allow Apple to have a ridiculously high price for the iPad.  Additionally, the people are no longer tuned in and are no longer sending their original message about price to Apple.  The people are unhappy about high taxes and high deficits, but they think that is a different subject.  Apple is very happy.  They are selling their product at a hugely inflated price.

Ultimately, in our scenario, Apple doesn’t have to price its product so that people can actually afford it

What a disaster.          

Government – the great miscommunicator

Government intervention in pricing is a bad idea.  It creates a destabilizing effect and rather than help consumers, it actually harms consumers.

Don’t believe me?  Take a look at what government has done in the area of college tuition.  The price of college has been rising at a staggering rate for decades!  How is that possible?

When you look at higher education you see that there are an awful lot of schools out there.  There is plenty of competition in the market place.  Competition usually drives prices down.  Additionally, inflation in the United States has been tiny since 1983, yet inflation in college prices during that time is absolutely skyrocketing.     

So why are universities charging so much money to get a bachelor’s degree?  Aside from the very wealthy, no one can afford to buy, with their own money, the product that the universities and colleges are selling.  Does this sound familiar?  It should.  It is exactly what our fictional Apple company did in the scenario above.  Just as the company jacked up the price of tablets so that only the very rich could afford the product; colleges and universities have jacked up their prices.

People cannot afford to pay the tuition.  This is where people would normally stop buying the product.  But instead, government has rushed in with grants and loans.  The consumer becomes numb to the ridiculously high tuition because the “government (taxpayers) are paying.”  The university takes a great deal of the money it earns from grants/loans and lobbies back to the government for more grants, cheaper loans, etc – anything they can do to ensure that the huge tuition payments keep rolling in.  The real message from price in the marketplace is squelched and it has been replaced with a false message from government spending.

Just watch the news this week and listen – the entire focus is on how we get more money transferred from government to consumers, so that the Colleges and Universities will never have to lower their prices.

It is truly insanity.

What kind of a business prices its product so that no one can afford it?  A terrible business, that’s what kind.  If I wanted to charge 50 dollars for a can of soda, or 10,000 dollars for a pair of running shoes, or 26,000 for television, the American consumer would run me out of business in a month.  They wouldn’t buy anything from me.  I would have to be the worst businessman in America to demand those prices.  I’d have no income and I’d be quickly out of business. 

Yet today, America’s colleges and universities intentionally price their product so most consumers cannot afford to pay.  What kind of a business would do such a thing?  Only an industry that is insulated from consumer feedback by virtue of the disastrous intervention of government would do such a thing.

This week, we have political leaders calling on universities to “hold the line on tuition.”  What a strange thing to ask when you are simultaneously using tax dollars to pay whatever tuition the school decides they feel like charging.

Why would any university change that?  They have already priced their product so high that without government grants and loans, most consumers cannot afford to pay.  And despite an over-priced product, the universities enjoy massive incomes and their employees get paid large salaries.  Who would want to change that?

Only consumers would want to change that.  If consumers couldn’t afford to pay tuition – guess what?  They would stop buying the over-priced product.  Tuition would be forced down to an acceptable price that people could afford or schools would go out of business.  Either way, the higher education system would be cheaper and more responsive to their actual customers.

Instead, we have a government subsidized mess.

– CJ Cheetham

*NOTE – Apple seems like one heckuva a great company to me.  They always deliver better, cheaper, faster products to their consumers.  May it always be so!  Apple was only used as a hypothetical example of how government  destroys the critical role of price in the economy. 

52 Songs for 52 Weeks: The Whole of the Moon by the Waterboys

Week 5 – The Whole of the Moon by the Waterboys

The Waterboys are a band that creates the big music.  Guitar, keyboards, fiddles, trumpets, – it’s all there.  There is no better song to learn about the Waterboys than this one.  

The Whole of the Moon is a gigantic, Celtic, happy song.  I’m pretty sure we played it at every party I ever went to in the late 1980s.

The torch in your pocket And the wind on your heels You climbed on a ladder And you know how it feels To get too high Too far Too soon You saw the whole of the moon The whole of the moon

The honest energy that Mike Scott brings to these lyrics, make it a must have tune for your collection.  Happy Irish rock recorded in the happy year of 1985.

Just listen – it will cheer you up.

I was dumbfounded by truth, but you cut through lies

http://youtu.be/AsNTmjlf1vI

– CJ Cheetham

52 songs for 52 weeks will get your music collection up to par. If you want to have a better music collection – check in each week . Add a song a week and in one year’s time your music collection will be the envy of all your friends.

The Miracle Flag

In early 1999, I was stationed at Goodfellow Air Force Base.  When you drive on Goodfellow, the first thing you will notice on the left is a parade field.  The field is used for various military events, but the most striking aspect of that field is that it is ringed, on certain days anyhow, with a multitude of American Flags.

I grew up in a small town in Massachusetts – and I am thankful that our town, Pembroke, was a patriotic town.  We learned at an early age to love our country and to work for the success of our country.  We were thankful for the patriots of our state who had helped found the United States – men like John Hancock, John Adams, and Paul Revere who had sacrificed do much so that we could live in a different kind of country.  A country founded on freedom.  Our town fairs had flags flying over them; our 4th of July celebrations had hymns of patriotism; and our teachers taught us about the greatness of America.

I also grew up in a patriotic family.  We loved the stories of great Americans – of Edison, Sgt. York, Jefferson, Eisenhower, and the Green Mountain Boys.  When I was a kid, the Cold War simmered and we desperately wanted freedom over slavery.  We were proud our boys had won WWII, and we were sure that we would win the next war too, if necessary.  We loved liberty and we despised tyrants.  We cheered when Eruzione scored in the Olympics.  We roared our approval when Reagan said “Tear down this wall!”

***

When my oldest child, Emma, was born in 1995, I made it one of my parental goals to instill in her the same love of country that I had learned as a child.  I knew this would be an uphill battle with the pervasive cynicism and denial of American greatness that had become so popular in the country.  So, when she was just a toddler, I made sure that some of her bedtime stories included stories about George Washington and the cherry tree or Abraham Lincoln growing up in poverty, only later to become President of the United States.

One of the things I always stressed to Emma was that the American Flag was something to be respected.  Whenever I saw the stars and stripes I would ask her, “isn’t it beautiful, Emma?  Isn’t the American Flag beautiful?”  Emma, just over three years old would always agree, smiling.

One morning in the spring of 1999, I packed Emma up into my car and headed to Goodfellow Air Force Base.  As we drove through the main gate onto the base my mind was drifting about, thinking about sports, current events, or something like that.  I wasn’t really tuned in to my surroundings and then Emma spoke up from her car seat in the back.

“Daddy, look!”

Snapping back to reality, I answered reflexively, “what is it Sweetie?”

“Look!  So pretty!”

I checked my rear view mirror and tried to see what Emma had in her hands.  Something must be pretty back there – maybe a doll?  Or a coloring page?

“What is pretty, Emma?”

“The Miracle Flag, Daddy.”

“The what?”  She was confusing me.

“The Miracle Flag”

I looked to my left and there was the Goodfellow Air Force Base parade field, ringed by what looked to be 50 American Flags.  That is what Emma was looking at.  The poor little girl – all that time I had been teaching her about the American flag she has been hearing the words all wrong.

I quickly corrected her so that she would get the pronunciation correct.

“Oh sweetie, that’s an American Flag”

“What?”

“That’s an American Flag.  It’s not miracle – it’s American.  A-mer-i-can.”

Emma didn’t answer me right away.  Instead she got quiet. 

Then as we turned left, and the parade field was no longer in her field of view she said quietly, but firmly “well, I think it’s a miracle flag.”

***

She was right.  My daughter just three and a half years old had it exactly right.  It is a miracle flag.

It’s a miracle flag because it represents a miracle country and a miracle people.  I challenge anyone to survey all of human history and find me the better country; the more just country; the more kind people; the more honest system.  You will look in vain, because that nation does not exist.

I know it has become popular to constantly question and deride our country.  For some bizarre reason people think they are clever or smart by running down America.  Really?  I think that kind of cynicism reveals a deep ignorance of history.

Show me the country with better values, better principles, and better founding documents. 

I love the flag and the people that flag represents.  If that makes me sound corny – I am guilty as charged. 

All I know is that one early morning in West Texas, in the spring of 1999 when I was driving with my little girl strapped in her car seat, she renamed my favorite symbol forever.

It isn’t an American Flag – it’s The Miracle Flag. 

-CJ Cheetham

52 Songs for 52 Weeks: Misfits by The Kinks

Week 4 – Misfits by the Kinks

You wander round this town Like you’ve lost your way You had your chance in your day Yet you threw it all away Now you’re lost in the crowd Yet, still go your own way

No collection of great music could possibly be complete without a selection from Ray Davies and the Kinks. 

Misfits is a real gem of a song – and it’s one of those songs that we can all relate to on some level.  Most of us don’t always fit in because misfits are everywhere.

This is your chance, this is your time So don’t throw it away You can have your day Yes it’s true what they say Every dog has his day

http://youtu.be/bcsJmkR2_1g

– CJ Cheeetham

52 songs for 52 weeks will get your music collection up to par.  If you want to have a better music collection – check in each week .  Add a song a week and in one year’s time your music collection will be the envy of all your friends.

52 Songs for 52 Weeks: Week 3 – Thing of Beauty by Hot House Flowers

Week 3 – Thing of Beauty by Hot House Flowers

The Hot House Flowers are a fantastic Irish band who have been recording since the late 1980s when U2’s Bono helped them get their first break.

I used to wonder how such a great band never made it big – but now I just forget all that and enjoy their wonderful music.

Thing of Beauty is about enjoying the little things in life; stop and enjoy it all.  If this song doesn’t put you in a good mood, there is something wrong with you – call in sick.

Look out your window on a winter’s morning Your breath is steam and there’s frost falling And the sun casts a spell upon the road A thing of beauty is not a thing to ignore

http://youtu.be/woa0GFwhciQ

– CJ Cheeetham

52 songs for 52 weeks will get your music collection up to par.  If you want to have a better music collection – check in each week .  Add a song a week and in one year’s time your music collection will be the envy of all your friends.