Eradicating Smallpox – Focus on Prevention, Not on Treatment

Smallpox is a contagious virus that causes an array of unpleasant symptoms—a raised pink rash on the skin that later turns to blisters, backache, delirium, diarrhea, excessive bleeding, fatigue, high fever, headache, and vomiting.

According to Wikipedia, the first recorded smallpox epidemic was in 1350 B.C. Most major cities in Europe had cases of the disease by the 18th century. The virus can live anywhere from 6 to 24 hours outside a host—on clothes, bedding, furniture, towels, etc. It’s no wonder the virus killed millions of people in Europe and Mexico in widespread epidemics. Of those infected, 20 to 60 percent of adults and 80 percent of children died from the disease. So how is it that on May 8, 1980, the World Health Assembly declared the world free of smallpox?

What changed?

The eradication of smallpox is due to the eradication of old medical practices—a break-with the traditions of the time. Super high fatality rates prompted people to look for better methods of combating the problem. Instead of waiting for people to get sick and then trying to treat them, people looked for ways to prevent the disease in the first place. They started to think proactively instead of reactively.

Variolation is the practice of exposing a healthy person to infected material in hopes of producing a mild form of a disease that will provide immunity. The first written account of variolation describes a Buddhist nun grinding up scabs taken from a person infected with smallpox, and then blowing the resulting powder into the nostrils of a non-immune person. By the 1700s, variolation was common practice in China, India, and Turkey. While some people still died from variolation, the total number of smallpox fatalities decreased ten-fold.

Variolation gave way to another proactive method against smallpox—vaccination. An English physician, Edward Jenner, developed the first vaccine against smallpox using the milder disease of cowpox, which provided a reasonable degree of immunity. World health officials then went on a long mission to eradicate smallpox, which they achieved in 1980.

The story behind the eradication of smallpox is symbolic for any organization facing a stubborn challenge that won’t go away and may be draining life from the organization. Smallpox exposes a break-with insight:

Break-With Insight: Primarily focus on prevention, not on treatment.

Yes, of course, you may think. Focusing on prevention is logical and certainly more effective than treating illness. But while prevention is logical and more effective, it is not common practice. So many problems and challenges in the workplace, in communities, and in the world are handled with treatment and cures rather than prevention.

Law enforcement organizations are some of the biggest offenders with this mentality. Our energy, resources, and best thinking go toward treatments—build more prisons, hire more judges, develop more inmate programs, buy more weapons, hire more police officers, etc. All of these methods focus on treating an uncivil society instead of preventing it.

Coming at a problem from a proactive, preventive mindset opens up all sorts of possibilities and options. Admittedly, it may also open up criticism and skepticism. In which case, you’re in good company with Dr. Edward Jenner, who was also harshly criticized for his original vaccine against smallpox.

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High Trapeze With a Safety Net

A corporate pilot friend of mine once spent a week over Thanksgiving at an all-inclusive resort in the Bahamas. These types of resorts usually provide many different activities for their guests—kayaking, sailing, various workout activities, parasailing, scuba diving, etc. This establishment had one of the most unusual activities my friend had ever been offered—trapeze training. At first, he was hesitant to try the trapeze. He felt a little silly and a little nervous to be flying through the air with only his knees hooked around a bar. But eventually, his adventurous side got the best of him and he signed up for the class.

The instructor did not provide a lot of lecture on the finer points of trapeze work. It was a hands-on, learn-as-you-go type of experience. The instructor would begin to swing on one side of the trapeze. The guest would stand ready on the other side and wait for the instructor’s command to begin swinging on his or her side. My friend tried all sorts of tricks that involved letting go of his trapeze bar, flying through the air and grabbing onto the instructor, and then going back to his own side again. Of course, he often used the safety net below when he didn’t time the swing quite right.

At the end of the week, the class members put on a show for the other guests at the resort. Later, my friend told me the scariest and most exhilarating part of the performance (other than the spandex tights they forced him to wear) was when he had to let go to move back and forth between the bars. The height wasn’t bad. Swinging wasn’t bad, but letting go was hard. But it was also letting go that made all the difference. Watching trapeze artists who never let go wouldn’t be much of a show.

Author and speaker Marilyn Ferguson said, “It’s not so much that we’re afraid of change or so in love with the old ways, but it’s that place in between that we fear. It’s like being between trapezes … There’s nothing to hold on to.” Leaders and team members often feel like my friend between trapezes. We have a hard time breaking with the command-and-control routine. We fear that if we let go, we might look foolish, the team might fail, or the organization may fall. The solution to this conundrum is to set up a safety net. Let me explain what I mean by that.

A safety net can be any number of things that make people feel safe to try new things. Here are a few safety nets that have worked for my team and helped them to reach and grow:

• Call it a pilot or beta program—if everyone knows you are running a trial period, people are more courageous about trying something new.
• Set realistic goals for the pilot program. Targeting a success rate at or below 50 percent helps people open up to new ideas. They understand it’s not going to be perfect the first time around.
• Build in review loops for the pilot program to allow time and space for adjustments and modifications.
• Establish a set timeframe to help people understand that the project or initiative has a defined beginning and end.
• Offer incentives—provide motivators for people who are willing to step outside the box.
• Let people run with their passion and talent.
• Provide support. An encouraging word from the boss goes a long way in helping people experiment a little.
• Praise failure. If team members see you react positively and learn from other projects that haven’t gone perfectly, they will be more likely to explore new assignments.

As you encourage your team members to break with the status quo or ineffective traditions, remember the high trapeze and offer a couple of safety nets so people are willing to let go and progress beyond their previous limits.

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Paradigm Shift – Catching Kids Being Good

Paradigm Shift
Imagine Catching Kids for Doing Something Good, Instead of Bad…

I can’t escape the realities of my job—I have to hunt down criminals. But could I also work on the other end of the spectrum? Could I build positive relationships strong enough to keep youth out of trouble? Could I serve as a mentor instead of a hunter? Could I learn to trust them? Could they learn to trust me?

“The first problem for all of us, men and women,
is not to learn, but to unlearn.” Gloria Steinem, U.S. journalist

Some Baby Steps

When I was assigned as Superintendent of Richmond, I wanted to build a strong relationship between the youth in our community and my police staff. The first small step was to get all of my people trained on being proactive and taking initiative. We had to pull out of our reactive mode of waiting for youth to commit a crime before we intervened.

We needed more proactive initiative and less reactive intervention—in other words, to prepare instead of repair.

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Psychological Air

In Mark Goulston’s book, Just Listen, he explains that listening is like allowing people to exhale, emotionally and mentally.

“… Exhaling [emotionally or mentally] enables people to experience and express their feelings––like draining a wound––in a way that doesn’t attack others or themselves. It’s the only response that relaxes stressed-out individuals and opens their minds to solutions from other people. That, in turn, offers an opportunity to resolve the source of the stress and prevent it from recurring.

When you give a distressed person breathing room––a place and a space to exhale––you don’t just get the situation back to normal, you actually improve on it. That’s because, in addition to getting a person to calm down, you build a mental bridge between the person and yourself. And when you build that bridge, you can communicate across it.”

Many leaders don’t give their people “a place or a space to exhale.” So team members walk around all day “holding their breath,” emotionally or mentally. You know what it feels like to hold your breath physically. It’s not that big of a stretch to imagine the consequences of holding your breath emotionally. While people are holding their breaths, leaders go out and hire expensive consultants to assess, diagnose, and fix internal problems that could be solved better and faster by simply allowing their own people to exhale—to talk and have someone listen.

Experience has helped me realize I had sometimes missed this opportunity for tapping into the best source for innovation, energy, and creativity—my own staff. I could spend $5,000 on a hired consultant for a day, or I could spend $50 to take some of my team to lunch and ask them what we should change. Which option has the better return on investment (ROI)? Obviously, the $50 lunch. Yet I had more trouble justifying the $50 lunch bill to my superiors than that $5,000 consultant bill!

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Listen, Then Act

The art and skill of listening has been analyzed, written about, discussed, and mulled over extensively in the past decade. I have no desire to recap those many accounts. But let’s be clear on what I mean when I say “listen, then act.”

Listening means sincerely trying to understand another person’s point of view until that person feels understood. Many books and training programs go into detail on developing this skill. Needless to say, listening is a hard job. As Nobel Prize–winning author Andre Gide said, “Everything has been said before, but since nobody listens, we have to keep going back and beginning all over again.”

After you listen and truly understand, then comes the action. Acting after listening ensures you are doing things that will actually solve some problem, issue, or concern. How many times have you acted first based on rumors, innuendos, half truths, and judgments, only to find out later that your actions were meaningless or even embarrassing because you didn’t listen?

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You Don’t Know It All

You Don’t Know It All

Listening is really a state of humility. You are acknowledging you don’t know it all—you have something to learn from someone else. It is a core characteristic of a servant leader. In Stephen M. R. Covey’s book, The Speed of Trust, he says that “smart leaders recognize the power of Listen First, particularly as it relates to coworkers and internal customers. If they don’t, they cheat themselves and the company out of the information, feedback, innovation, collaboration, and partnering inherent in a high-trust environment and vital to success in today’s global economy.”

I once saw a plaque on the wall of another leader. It said simply, “Listen—It’s Your Job.” Leaders of teams, organizations, and even countries could use such advice. What would have happened in the city of Troy if the Greeks and the Trojans had sat down together and listened to one another? Could the Trojan horse have been entirely transformed from a counterfeit gift to a true gift of peace?

Norm Augustine, Former Chairman of Lockheed Martin, said, “We’ve all heard the criticism ‘he talks too much.’ When was the last time you heard someone criticized for listening too much?” My experience taught me that leaders must actively engage in and even force conversations where they can listen. Remember the old axiom, nothing fails like success? When you think all is well, think again and start listening. What you hear will amaze you.

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On Servant Leadership

On Servant Leadership

The servant-leader is servant first … It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions …


In the desert, travelers experience an optical phenomenon called a mirage in which light rays are bent to produce a displaced image of distant objects or the sky. The effect often looks like a small lake or pond. You’ve probably experienced the same thing to a degree if you’ve ever been on a highway in very hot temperatures. The asphalt in the distance seems to shimmer and appear wet, yet when you reach that spot in the road, the asphalt is dry.

In my speaking and consulting engagements with leaders from around the world, I have noticed servant leadership produces a type of mental phenomenon similar to a mirage. The C-suite executives in many organizations see servant leadership as a lose-win situation. A servant leader seems to be a “doormat”—someone who allows himself or herself to be taken advantage of. Or the leader seems weak. That is the mirage. My experience suggests when you work from the mindset of serving first, you see the situation for what it really is—a win-win. Not a position of weakness, but a position of strength.

James Kouzes and Barry Posner in Credibility: How Leaders Gain and Lose It, Why People Demand It, say, “Leaders we admire do not place themselves at the center; they place others there. They do not seek the attention of people; they give it to others. They do not focus on satisfying their own aims and desires; they look for ways to respond to the needs and interests of their constituents. They are not self-centered; they concentrate on the constituent … Leaders serve a purpose and the people who have made it possible for them to lead … In serving a purpose, leaders strengthen credibility by demonstrating that they are not in it for themselves; instead, they have the interests of the institution, department, or team and its constituents at heart. Being a servant may not be what many leaders had in mind when they choose to take responsibility for the vision and direction of their organization or team, but serving others is the most glorious and rewarding of all leadership tasks.”

Servant Leadership is about being a servant first!

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Leadership is All About Letting Go…Letting Go of Power

Leadership is All About Letting Go…Letting Go of Power

When I am asked for the definition of leadership, I simply state…”leadership is all about letting go…letting go of power”. The reason why? Well, I think most human beings want to work in a high trust environment and be allowed to do their job. I call it the release philosophy and I base my leadership approach on an accountability model of releasing the reins, the harness that holds back your people from achieving greatness and personal fulfillment.

Bully Leadership

Coming from a command and control environment (policing), by default I became an expert in learning how to become a Commander. In other words, how to be an autocrat. Where power was hoarded, controlled and tightly held. I can tell you stories for hours about the quasi-dictators I studied, or watched in action throughout my research and professional career…instead of using the velvet glove, they pulled out the iron fist and ruled by bully management, fear and threats.

They were micro managers, control junkies, arrogant, filled with ego, and lived off their position power. Funny thing is, they were all not bad people at heart; they just were managing the way they were treated by their bosses during the industrial age era. So what I witnessed was a self fulfilling philosophy.

Do You Want Your Legacy To Be That of a Commander or Releaser?

I made a promise to myself…if I ever had a circle of influence where I led a team, there was no way would I be like that. Easier said than done, but I pushed myself every day using my mantra “let go…trust…release…pay attention, accept mistakes, adjust and try again”.

The Fear of the Unknown

So what is my message in this article? Simply put, letting go is the hardest act that a leader can take. Trusting your people and allowing them to spread their wings is the ultimate fear factor for many. It is the fear of the unknown…it’s the space between the high trapeze act where you let go of one ring, and are air borne towards the other. It’s the fear of what might happen. What if they screw up? What if they don’t deliver? What if I am wrong?

Well…get over it. Step up to the plate and show and simply be courageous! Nobody said being a leader is easy, and nobody said you will get it right the first time. Failure is the path to success…but only if you learn from what you let go and what worked, and didn’t. So, plan for mistake, “stuff happens”. Accept it, celebrate it and move on.

Smart Release

The most important factor in “letting go” is all around, how much do I let go, when, to whom, when and where? This is where you need to know the skill sets, capabilities and talents of your people. You cannot let everybody go at the same level. Everyone is different and smart release requires taking time to know your people, working with them individually, and holding them accountable to shared expectations.

Have you ever taken a dog for a walk on a leash? What happens if you unleash him with no training, no discipline, and no commands? – It runs away. Why? – Because you did not put the front end effort in to train, develop and support. Same holds true with unleashing people. With people “fast is slow”. It just takes time. But, this is time well worth your while. This is simply a “smart investment”.

Let Go of Power – Uncommand and Control

Final words…anyone can be a commander. You challenge is becoming a releaser.
Which one do you want to be?

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Getting Past Two-Alternative Thinking

Getting Past Two-Alternative Thinking

I am a big fan of Dr. Stephen R Covey. He had deeply influenced my character and leadership style.
Dr. Covey has recently released a new book that is very powerful and a “must read”. It is titled:
The Third Alternative: Solving Life’s Most Difficult Problems

Over the years Dr. Covey has inspired me to move past the traditional two-alternative thinking and look at problems differently. He pushed me into the third alternative. As a result, I was able to contribute to his newest book.

The third alternative is basically the fruit of synergy, where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

Within this book is a chapter titled “The Third Alternative and Society and a section called “The End of Crime”.

And here is where we explore the magic around Ending Crime… Yes – ending crime!

Two alternative thinking that is either “tough on crime” or “soft on crime”.

The Third Alternative is the whole continuum – think of a river with a waterfall at the end – you have upstream, midstream and downstream.

Using this analogy – Downstream would be reactive, post incident corrective; Upstream would be front-end prevention; But, what about the middle? The middle – Think about it… What can we do there?

I love this saying by Henry David Thoreau, “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.”

With this insight, Thoreau captured the consequences of Two-Alternative thinking.

Those who are “tough on crime” are satisfied with hacking at the branches. Those who are “soft on crime” are too often guilty of ignoring the branches. They insist nothing can be done until we get to the roots and solve the great social problems that generate crime.

But if Thoreau were pressed, I think he would agree that the branches need attention, too.

In essence, The End of Crime shares examples of where we applied third alternative thinking to come up with smarter ways to pro-act, interact and react to societies problems, and leadership challenges.

The exciting aspect is – the same approach works for business and organizations too. Business is business, whether you’re into policing or selling a service or product.

Go For the Third!

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How to Overcome Resistance & Push Back

Overcoming Resistance & Push Back

I found nine leadership principles that are timeless and proven to work. The nine principles are unarguable; they have survived the test of time.

Learn, embrace, deeply internalize and practice daily, and you will overcome any push back or resistance.

1) Cling to purpose, not policy – this is about having a reason, making a difference and leaving a legacy.

2) Lead from the bottom up, not the top down – this is the art of servant leadership.

3) The ORDINARY is visioning, planning and execution – the EXTRA ORDINARY is visioning, planning, executing and adjusting – this is the skill of keeping an open mind, flexing, adapting to the changing environment.

4) Listen with no expectations, agendas or preconceived notions – when you master this, everything else will successfully follow.

5) Empower employees by inspiring progress and performance – give them the training, tools to do the job, remove the barriers and let them go…leadership is about trust and letting go.

6) You will succeed if you tend to the web – continually building and rebuilding connections, partnerships, relationships – You will fail if you don’t.

7) Primarily focus on prevention, not the treatment – this is the art of anticipating the obvious and doing something positive to stop it from happening.

8) Never underestimate the value of fun – imagine a job that you love so much…you would do it for free. Make that happen in your work environment today.

9) Win the crowd and you will win your change – timing and patience is everything, but never stop pushing

For me, I was able to find peace and serenity, even during major push back from some of my culture, in these 9 principles. I found great strength in knowing that I was not alone in believing.

I also knew that the skeptics could not argue success. We had metrics that identified we had a 95 % success rate in some of the proactive initiatives we had undertaken where the shared leadership philosophy was critical for the success.

You cannot argue success – so I found some comfort there.

Also, in his bestselling book, Dr. Stephen R Covey defines Proactivity… taking initiative – Within this definition he talks about the word RESPONSIBILITY. When he breaks the word down, he teaches that each of us has the ability to choose our response.

We have the power and control to choose how we respond to every situation. I found great peace in this….HEY, I can choose to be happy or cranky…it’s my choice.

So, I chose to be positive, to be courageous and to be patient and supportive to those that were still struggling with this new leadership approach. It may still take 40 years before it is main stream. Maybe I am just a little ahead of my time? Who knows? Who cares… when you are doing it for the right reasons, you find courage to continue, and comfort based from relentless execution on timeless leadership principles.

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