Hey Jimmy Kimmel – I Told My Kids I Threw Away Their Honour Roll


There are a few things that get my blood boiling. This is one of them:

Calgary School Ends Honour Roll Program Because of Hurt Feelings

Let me take a deep breath and try to regain my composure.

It’s possible that the school had the best interests of the kids at heart. Maybe. The principal expects students to learn for learning’s sake. Maybe he should have done the same. The principal based his decision on the work of the “educational guru” Alphie Kohn’s ideas that rewards and punishments are both methods of controlling behaviour and if we really care about the children, we need to work with them, not manipulate them. Kohn’s works include:

“70 studies showing that extrinsic motivators—including A‘s, sometimes praise, and other rewards—are not merely ineffective over the long haul but counterproductive”.

The problem is that academics have been duking this out in academic journals for the last 20 years! The research is not cut and dry and there are plenty of people who argue that it is easy to overcome any problems of demotivation. (It usually involves making sure that real effort is required to achieve the award.)

The problem with listening to these gurus, is that people take their word as gospel and fail to look at the actual research themselves. If you’re going to turn your school into a social experiment, I think you have an obligation to truly understand what you are basing your experiment on. Are you a visionary, blindly following someone who may be wrong, or are you just bitter because maybe you didn’t get on the honour roll when you were a kid?

If Kohn is wrong, then this principal is taking away recognition that means something to some students for nothing. And I’ll tell you something that is 100% demotivating, no reference required: asking someone to work hard, and then when they’ve achieved their goal, taking away what they’ve earned.

Ouch! Don’t believe me?

Just ask the kids whose parents told them they ate all their Halloween candy.

By Veronica Ciolfi

Your Values or Mine?


Yesterday, my friend asked me a question: Can you lead someone with very different values than you? After all, personal values help define who we are and are at the core of what motivates us. How do we reconcile working with someone who wants different things than we do?

First I would argue that mutual respect is a must.  If there isn’t, if one person believes that the other’s person values don’t matter, you can’t have a mutually beneficial relationship. If there’s no mutual respect, then you have to decide who’s values take priority and how do you do that? No one person is fundamentally better than another. At some point there has to be an agreement to disagree or the person who drew the line in the sand ends up walking away.

Secondly, though your values drive your actions, as a leader, you are more interested in what drives your subordinates actions. All values are great, they just mean that people have different priorities than you do. From my perspective, a leader needs to know what motivates their followers and do their best to give them what they need in order to be successful, thus driving the mission forward. If family is the number one priority of one of your workers, then if you want that worker to provide their best to the company, you have to do what you can to help them meet their needs. Working from home, or flexible hours during difficult family times. At the same time, if you know that family is important, you can try to provide that kind of atmosphere at work to motivate them.

If you value independence and your co-worker values teamwork, I can see how there would be friction, but as a leader, you need to still be able to give your follower what they need, if you want them to be successful. To force them to prioritize your values isn’t going to work.

But what happens when people in your team have different and possibly conflicting values? That’s where it gets difficult. In all cases, the cost of being together as a partnership, a team, or a firm has to be lower than the cost of working separately. If it is too difficult to make someone productive, if it harms the team and lowers their productivity, then the firm would be foolish not to get rid of this person or move them elsewhere, which has its own costs. This explains why recruiters place a lot of emphasis on cultural fit when hiring. It’s easier to work as team when you’re all stuck in the same mud together.

So what can you do when you see conflict in your team arising from conflicting values? There are no magic answers here in this small blog, but I think one of the most important things that can be done is to acknowledge the differences openly. Rather than hokey “team building” activities that involve making a bridge out of Popsicle sticks, individual and  group discovery sessions that identify individual and shared values can be a great way of identifying areas of compatibility as well as  potential minefields. From there, you can decide how to mitigate potential problems (if possible or necessary) or whether you can just focus on the strengths of the group to crowd them out.

by Veronica Ciolfi

Follow the Leader


So last week, I was in the car, heading to my parents’ house to drop off the baby. Another car cut me off and I may have sworn a tiny bit. I forgot I had an audience in the back seat.

Son#3: Shit!
Me: Oh no!
Son#3: Oh no! Shit! Shit! Shit! Shit!
Me: *moment of panic* Sweetie…that’s not a nice word. You shouldn’t say it.
Son#3: Shit! Shit! Shit! Shit!
Me:  Wait! Nose! Where’s your nose?
Son#3: Nose, nose, nose, nose….
Me: *whew*

The joys of toddlerhood. Turns out they’re actually paying attention. Sadly, I didn’t learn my lesson. A few days later, I was trying to get out of a parking lot but because of construction and a poorly parked truck, I was blocked in. I may have cursed just a tiny bit more.

Son #3: Uck!
Me: Nooooo!
Son #3: Uck! Uck! Uck! Uck! Uck!
Me: I don’t suppose you’re saying truck?
Son #3: Uck! Uck! Uck!
Me: *banging head on steering wheel*
Son #3: Uck! Uck! Uck!
Me: What about duck?
Son #3: Uck! Uck! Uck!
Me: Where’s your nose?
Son #3: Uck! Uck! Uck!
Me: I think Mommy has to go sit in time-out.

This story illustrates how critical it is to lead by example. Whether you have a toddler or adults that look up to you, one of the quickest and easiest ways I’ve seen to lose all credibility as a leader (and parent) is to spout the nonsense, “Do as I say, not as I do”.

A remember a few years ago, when Son #1 was in grade one, he asked for a list of bad words he wasn’t allowed to say because he didn’t want to say one by accident and get in trouble for it. So that got us talking because, as seen above,  the occasional bad word has slipped past my filters and Son #1 wanted to know why he couldn’t swear. I tried the honest approach and told him it would make me look like a bad parent.

He laughed.

Then we came to a compromise. He can’t use a bad word unless he can tell me exactly what it means, why it’s inappropriate to use the word and what effect he’s trying to create by using it in that context. I will happily do the same, if he’s interested. It turns out that he’s not that interested and would rather play video games.

I have a hunch that the same approach isn’t going to work with Son #3.  I wonder if he’ll appreciate a discourse on the finer points of microeconomics while I drive, instead?

We Cannot Be the Giving Tree


I never knew why, but part of me always hated the story The Giving Tree. It’s not that I don’t understand love. I have three wonderful boys and I would do anything for them. And it’s not just that it’s a sad story because both the boy and the tree are even somewhat happy in the end.

Maybe it’s that the Giving Tree gave everything to the boy and then that’s all it had. What if the boy lived another 20 years and wanted to keep coming back to the Tree, but because the Tree had given too much, it couldn’t give anymore?

That’s the problem with sacrificing yourself. You lay yourself down at whatever alter you chose with the belief that your sacrifice will define you, but I say that’s hogwash. It’s not the loss of you that defines you. It’s you. It’s your love, your passion, your ideas, your effort, and your relationships.

If you sacrifice your whole being just to satisfy the whim of a short-sighted boy (even if you love them more than your life) then you cannot give him anything more, even if he needs you more in the future.

As a leader sometimes we need to be like a tree. Strong. Standing tall. Ready to support our followers , whether they’re our children, our employees, our friends, or our students. But unlike the Giving Tree, we need to take care of ourselves. We can’t give everything away without demanding new fertilizer and water for ourselves. To not do so is short-sighted. Then we can only give so much. If we take care of ourselves and continue growing, we can support more people. We can let them reach even greater heights.

We’ve all known people who just want to keep giving. They can’t say no, even as it eats them away. I’ve been in the headspace as well—feeling like my worth was defined only by what I could provide for my family. Then a very wise man pointed out that I would never want my children to feel that way. They are precious and worth far more than just a sacrifice for someone else. Then he pointed out that the best way to teach them that was to Lead By Example.

Talk about a mind shift that knocked me off my feet.

So, what can we do? How can we keep going, keep giving and giving while still holding onto our spark?

We are social animals and many things about our evolution supports our need for other people. Meditation and a day at the spa may help relax us and give us focus, but I think a critical part of the recharging process is a great set of friends. Like batteries that get used up every time we give something of ourselves to another person, we need people that will help recharge us.



Feeling loved, feeling valued, feeling understood.  It involves someone giving something of them to us…their time, their ears, their patience, their effort or their silence. And that’s OK. We all need a group of people that we can call on to give us a bit of themselves, every once in a while. With friends, it’s give and take and it allows us to keep giving ourselves, over and over again.

The truly selfless act may be to be a little bit selfish, after all.


by Veronica Ciolfi

*Beautiful picture at the top by Jonathan Sammy.

Where’s the Damn List



I’m busy. You’re busy. Everyone’s busy these days.  And maybe some of you are hoping that I’ll just get on with things and get to the list already. I mean, there has to be a list of what a leader needs to do, right? Bullet points are fine, but numbered lists are better. Well, the good news is there are lots of lists out there.

Forbes has their Leader’s Checklist , the Canadian Forces had their simple list before they updated their manuals and Howard Behar has his list from working at Starbucks.

The problem is not that there aren’t lists, the problem is that there isn’t just one. And it’s not a matter of taking all the lists out there and squishing them together, either. The problem is what works one time might not work the next and what works for one person, might not work for another.

A few weeks ago, I brought up the possibility of using non-linear science as a metaphor for leadership.  This idea made so much sense when I heard Brenda Zimmerman talking about complexity theory in our Leadership class. She said there are three types of problems:

1. Simple problems. These can be solved using a set of instructions like using a recipe to make a cake. If you follow the recipe, you should get a pretty good cake every time. The outcome is known.

2. Complicated problems. These are difficult problems like sending a rocket to the moon. Here, you need protocols, formulas and expertise. If you are successful, it increases the chances of doing it again. The outcome is knowable.

3. Complex problems. These are like raising a child. As any parent knows, having a set of protocols that are strictly adhered is almost impossible (if not laughable), and just because a certain technique worked on one child doesn’t mean it will work on the next. These types of problems are relationship-based and the outcome is unknowable.

When we think of science, we usually think of simple or complicated problems. However, leadership problems are complex. The starting conditions cannot be used to predict the final outcome. Think of gathering your team together for their first meeting. You can run the exact same meeting for every team you work with but the end results will be different every time.

Complexity has its origins in chaos theory which is not about randomness but rather patterns that develop. It’s non-linear, which means that small changes to the system can produce unpredictable results (think the Butterfly Effect) and it has emergent properties that come from the interactions between the people. Let’s go back to the example of the first team meeting. As a leader, you can give the exact same opening speech, assign the same tasks and the pattern of behaviour for each team will be different. This seems logical because each person has their own unique personality, but we can also say that each team is a Complex Adaptive System (CAS). Complex Adaptive Systems  are made up of independent agents (people) that interact because of common goals, outlooks or other needs. They are also adaptive—new relationships form, old ones may dissolve—and that is what makes them so challenging.

This is why there are so many lists. Each list is successful sometimes. This also helps explain why some managers are successful even though they possess what you might consider to be terrible leadership skills. Like the micromanaging leader that controls every aspect of your work life and is driving you crazy. Their style of interacting with people is successful sometimes. Some people like the constant guidance. The same holds true for the boss that’s on Facebook all day. Some people like being left to their own devices. The problem is that these successes can reaffirm a particular leadership style if it never occurs to the leader that even a broken clock is right twice a day.

So how do we ensure that we’re more useful as leaders than just occasionally?

Just as your team is constantly adapting and evolving, you need to as well. As leaders, I think we also have to be willing to concede that we don’t have full control of the situation; that eventually, we have to let our kids get on the school bus by themselves and see what emerges. It doesn’t mean we aren’t involved. We still have to lead. But instead of looking at the little details, we have to look at the wider situation. The patterns and interactions usually tell a story much earlier than a failed project or missed deadline.

This means that leadership is messy and unpredictable. Sometimes we get it wrong. Sometimes we get it right. Which means that about the only thing I can think of to put on a Leadership To Do List is this:

1. You have to try.

I think that’s a great place to start.

I Human


Picture by David Howell

Many of you who know me, know my crazy sister. There are many reasons why I call her crazy, but  I’d like to share one in particular. A few weeks ago, she  called me, all nonchalantly. When I asked her what was up, she replied that she was lying on the ground, in a forest. This led me to asking why she was lying on the ground, in a forest, and she replied that she had been thrown from her motorcycle while riding a trail and it hurt too much to get up. After a deep breath on my part (because if she’d been in danger of dying there probably would have been more shrill crying or at the very least, sarcasm), I asked her if she needed me to call someone. She said no, her husband had driven to the entrance of the trails so he could direct the ambulance to her. She just  didn’t feel like lying there alone, so she called me.

You can watch the Youtube video here. The crash happens around 3:30. The person she’s talking on the phone at the 6 minute mark is me.

All this reminded  me of a story she told me while giving me a motorcycle tour of Vancouver. She said that there was a belief that the gear that some motorcyclist wore (dark visor, full helmet, dark body armour) might actually increase motorcycle accidents because the rider looked less human and more robotic while wearing all the gear. As a result, other drivers weren’t as careful around motorcyclists that didn’t look human.

There is some research to support this. Monsters in Metal Caccoons discusses that when we are in the interior of a car, we feel protected and isolated. We are also in control of the car and so we become “enhanced humans”. Cyborgs. In turn, drivers start to dehumanize other drivers, seeing them as just the car. This is why road rage becomes easier. We are more likely to swear at the car in front of us than if a fellow pedestrian cuts us off on the sidewalk.

What does this have to do with leadership? My sister’s story got me wondering, what are other ways that we disguise people’s humanness? We may not have the distance provided by a car or a motorcyclist’s body armor, but I think everyone can probably identify a time when we treated someone as a thing, instead of a person. When it was easier to dismiss someone’s concerns as trivial rather than trying to address the problem.

To borrow Jessica Hagy’s style of illustration:


For example, a problem employee offered up an idea and my first instinct was to shoot it down because I didn’t see any value to it. This employee consistently had trouble implementing useful solutions. I only realized my mistake when I looked him in the eyes. Looking at him forced me out of my head, out of the category I had shoved him in and forced me to consider the situation from his point of view.

The problem employee had been labelled as difficult and not having a clear understanding of the company’s mission. But really listening to his idea, understanding how he came to it, showed that he did understand what we were trying to accomplish, he was just going about it a different way. He needed guidance on how to evaluate his ideas, not someone to do the evaluation for him.

Some people might argue that if you spend all your time empathizing with your team members, then it becomes impossible to offer guidance or corrections because now you are their friend. The problem is that they see empathy and assertiveness like this:


when instead, they could be seen like this:

empathy-assertion graph

Empathy and assertiveness are not mutually exclusive. Empathy is about perspective-taking, and understanding the issues from someone else’s point of view. It shows that the other person’s point of view has value whether you agree with it or not. It’s about respect,  which is probably one of the most important things a leader can give to their followers.

So whether we are driving in a car, working the reception desk or leading a team through a project, it’s important to recognize everyone’s humanness, the things that make them worth more than a just a robot.

At the same time, it’s important to watch out for logs lying on the path.

The Problems (and Benefits) of Metaphors


The world is a chaotic and messy place and it’s worthwhile giving yourself some credit for how you’ve managed to sort it out so far. We’ve all done a pretty good job since most of us manage to function in society at large. One of things we’ve used to help us classify and understand the world is metaphors. Metaphors helps us take things we may not fully understand, but by comparing them to things we do understand, we can sort the unknown into useful categories and get on with our lives.

So what’s the problem?

It’s no secret that how we think about things influences what we do . Tony Robbins examines the stories we tell ourselves and whether they empower or disempower us.  This TED blog talks about  five  examples of how language can affect the way we think and here’s a journal article that shows how theories can become self-fulfilling prophecies.

Bringing this back to leadership, I want to focus on the fact that many of us use the word “art” when describing leadership. I did in my first blog post because that’s how the Canadian Forces defined it back in the 90’s and that’s the way it has become ingrained in my head.

I want to look at this metaphor more closely and see if it’s really the metaphor I want to keep using.

Art is performed by artists–special people with skills most of us don’t have. Artists usually have to sacrifice everything and a fair number aren’t even recognized as great until they’re dead. That’s a rather depressing way to look at leadership. And to be realistic, we need leaders out there in the field and in industry doing things, not just looking pretty on a wall in some art gallery.

Also, an artist is selfish in the sense that they have a sentiment or feeling that they want to express and they want to express it a certain way. If people don’t understand the artist’s work, the artist usually doesn’t make any apologies and try to recreate the art a different way. The work of art is what it is.

Some leaders are like that. Steve Jobs made no apologies about what he envisioned and he drove Apple with his sheer force of will.  However, other leaders have tried the same strategy and failed miserably.

Like any skill, whether it’s painting, solving algebraic equations, or leadership, the more we practice, the better we get. If there’s one thing I like about the “art” metaphor is that art is about expressing or applying creative skill. There’s no doubt that creativity is useful, but I would like to argue that it’s a characteristic of creativity that’s actually one of the most valuable traits for a leader to have.

Flexibility. The ability to change in response to circumstances.

In this case, I think calling leadership an art is valuable. After all, science is not usually known for its flexible approaches to problem solving. Newton’s laws haven’t changed over time. But, not all science is linear. As my background is in science, the idea of looking at non-linear sciences as a metaphor for leadership intrigues me. But that’s a future post.

So what other metaphors can we use to describe leadership? Me and another instructor once asked a group of leaders this same question. We made them wander around the classroom and asked them to look at what leadership lessons they could learn. One group looked at the corner where four tiles met on the floor. They said that being a leader was like that corner, with all the lines going toward that point. Sometimes the edges between the tiles got dirty, but the corner still had a job to do.

Another metaphor I’ve used:

Leadership is like driving a car.

1. You need a destination (goal that you’re trying to accomplish) otherwise what’s the point?

2. You need to figure out the best route (technical problem solving).

3. You need to supply gas and steering to your car (team) in order to get to the destination.

Anyone who has ever been on a road trip knows that the travel is the toughest part. People suffer from travel fatigue (are we there yet?!). Cars break down. Maps aren’t always accurate.

In the end, some drivers will give up and go home. Some will ask for directions from the locals. Some will make necessary repairs en route while others push on with a rattling under the hood. I like to think most of us will get to our destination. The real question is whether or not we’re going to have a car left for the next trip when this one is over or whether we’ll have to thumb a ride home from the side of the road.

The great thing is we don’t always have to use the same metaphor. Sometimes we may want to be the artist, sometimes the driver, sometimes the chalk sitting on the edge of the chalkboard, waiting to be picked up. We can switch metaphors and the stories that define us, anytime we want, anytime we’re stuck, or anytime we just want to try something new.

So what’s your metaphor for leadership?

Authority comes from above–Leadership is granted from below


Seven-thirty every morning, I sit on the couch and watch Thomas the Tank Engine. I’m not a big fan, but as far as son #3 is concerned–well, TRAINS! The lesson a few mornings ago was that James didn’t like to be told what to do by a lowly freight car. James, after all, is an ENGINE. And, of course, James ended up in trouble because he didn’t listen. He then had to go back to the freight car for help in solving the problem.

As my mind wandered from the happy singing on TV, I got to thinking– that happens way too often. I’ve seen it countless times. A newly promoted manager with something to prove, that feels like they can’t afford to listen to their followers because that would threaten their authority. After all, why did they get promoted if they don’t have all the answers? Or, they feel the need to flex their authority-muscles to show everyone they’re in charge.

The problem is authority and leadership are two vastly different things.

An organization can give you authority to decide things. Followers have to give you permission to lead them. Sure, you can “force” people to do what you say. You can assign someone to sweep the floors or file the backlog of papers. But unless they buy in or have some other reason to try and please you, they will do the bare minimum necessary to keep their job. And if they’re only trying to please you to make a good impression? Eventually someone else will come along that they want to impress more. They will have no loyalty toward you or your team.

We usually gain authority in an organization for a variety of reasons: maybe we hold the right degree or accreditation, or maybe we were just really good at our previous job. Unfortunately, the traits that got us the promotion are rarely the traits that will make us great leaders. And while we can most certainly have leadership without authority, authority without leadership leads to very bad things.

Which brings me to my favorite quote on leadership from One Bullet Away, written by Nathaniel Fick:

” Strong combat leadership is never by committee. Platoon commanders must command, and command in battle isn’t based on consensus. It’s based on consent. Any leader wields only as much authority and influence as is conferred by the consent of those he leads. The Marines allowed me to be their commander, and they could revoke their permission at any time.”

The Marine Corps gave Lt Fick the authority to command. But, he realized that unless he earned the respect, trust and loyalty of the men in his platoon, he would never actually be leading. If anyone is interested in the story, I highly recommend watching Generation Kill.  You can read the article it was originally based on  archived here.

Of course, this doesn’t just apply to the military (it’s just harder to find news articles about good or bad middle managers).

So how do we develop the traits that make us successful leaders? I think we need to switch our focus. I don’t think it was a coincidence that James was the engine that had trouble listening to the freight car. After all, he’s the one “that’s vain, but lots of fun“.

Getting promoted likely involved honing our own skills. Now we need to switch our focus so that we’re not just concerned with how well we’re doing, but rather how well the people in our team are doing. We have to value them as people and employees. We have to listen to them.

If James had been a little less focused on himself and actually believed that the freight car had a valuable opinion, then the show would have been disappointingly short for my toddler, but maybe a little less mind numbing for me.

Then again, I guess it’s not just about me.

The Art of Leadership



Between the ages of 12 and 18, much of my free time was spent participating in the Air Cadets program.  Some kids go to camp, some work part-time and I went to Cadets.  I met great friends, learned new skills, and received some solid leadership training.  I still recall the definition they taught us:

“Leadership is the art of influencing human behaviour in order to accomplish a mission in the manner desired by the leader.”

~Canadian Forces definition of leadership, circa 1990

While there was dubious value in memorizing this definition there are some parts of it that I like. I agree, leadership is very much an art. There is no formula for dealing with people, no recipe for getting them to do what you want.  And make no mistake,  the most important part of that definition is that leadership is all about influencing people’s behaviour.  But how do we do that? Well, that’s the million dollar question, and one I hope we’ll be exploring together here.

 I have one beef  with this definition: it seems to place more emphasis on the second half of the definition, accomplishing a mission in the manner desired by a leader than on the first part. Which makes sense, to a certain extent, if you remember that the definition came from the Canadian military. Mission, always the Mission, was a mantra that was repeated over and over again. But that’s a scary definition and implies that the ends justify the means. It also implies that the leader knows the manner in which they want the mission accomplished but that’s not always the case.  Even in the military. I would argue that part of being an effective leader is involving your team in the solution process. 

In 2005, the Canadian Forces published new leadership manuals, with the following change to the definition of leadership:

CF leadership may be formally defined as directing, motivating, and enabling others to accomplish the mission professionally and ethically, while developing or improving capabilities that contribute to mission success. Leadership in the Canadian Forces: Doctrine


Not as easy to memorize, but definitely puts the emphasis on the people side of things. Also, I love the subtle shift to enabling others to accomplish the mission.  The leader is now responsible for contributing to mission success, but doesn’t have to operate in a vacuum any more.

And to me, that’s what leadership is about. You can’t be a leader if you’re the only one involved. Leadership is about bringing people together for a purpose. Whether it’s to attack a trench, ship boxes, serve a client or change the world. But the challenge is not coming up with something to do, there are lots of great ideas out there. The hard part is getting the team to work together, past the individual issues, past the interpersonal issues, past the assumptions and the egos so that the team can do what individuals working by themselves can’t.

Which brings me to my definition of leadership:

Leadership is the courage to bring people together and the art of engaging them so that they can accomplish great things.

So why bother starting with a definition? Because I think it’s easy to get lost and wander around this rather fluffy subject and forget what we’re actually trying to do. In order to figure out how to be an effective leader, or better yet, a great leader, I think we need to be sure we’re talking about the same thing. My definition isn’t restricted to people in official, I’m-in-charge positions.  It can apply to a manager trying to get their team to ship a product on time or it can apply to parents trying to make their family unit a place where everyone can thrive. It can apply to teachers, engaging their students and it can apply to someone who wants to start fundraising for a cause that they’re passionate about.

It’s not about strategy. It’s not about winning.

For me, it’s about helping to bring the best out in people.

So what’s your definition of leadership?