Monthly Archives: January 2013

Captain Bligh, A Cat Named Trim and Ann Chappelle

By Rick Gay
Three distinct nouns with one common denominator: Matthew Flinders, RN. Flinders was an 18th century navigator and cartographer for the Royal Navy, serving as midshipman under Capt. William Bligh where he learned much of his professional personality. Life as an 18th century officer on ships of the line was tough and required a callous exterior, which Flinders accomplished with ease. However, history (and the French) was cruel to Flinders, which ultimately allowed us to see his real personality. In 1801 Flinders, a Commander in charge of his own ship and newly married to Ann Chappell, set sail to what we now call, thanks to Flinders, Australia. In 1803, after successfully charting the southern coast of Australia, Flinders started his return trip back to England. Since his vessel was no longer seaworthy he planned to sail to Mauritius and seek passage back to Europe. However, upon arriving at Mauritius, he was arrested and spent the next six years captive.

It is on Mauritius that we see the real Flinders. Flinders’ wasn’t known for keeping a happy ship, which is not surprising given the shipboard discipline of the day. However, in confinement he wrote poignant letters to his new wife from whom he would endure a nine-year separation. More revealing is his love for his cat, named Trim. Flinders wrote a book about the cat after Trim’s untimely death. This book shows Flinders real self – one who cares deeply. The insights he provides in his letters to Ann during his long confinement and the book about Trim indicate he was an open and genuine individual. Unfortunately Flinders died less than four years after his eventual return to England. This left Ann a widow after spending only three of their 13 years of marriage with her husband.

One of the lessons we can take from Flinders’ life is to be genuine. We use the word genuine frequently, but do we really consider its meaning and how it applies to us? Genuine connotes that one actually possesses the qualities of character that they are reputed to have. How many times do we ask “How are you” without really caring? It’s part of the social exchange that lubricates society and opens the door to further conversation. However, if you really don’t care how someone is doing, don’t ask the question – you’re not being genuine. This is a simplistic example. In leadership, being genuine means to stop using – in essence acting – a leadership style of the organization you serve. Being genuine means opening yourself up to others – extending trust. This, in return, fosters trust.

How do we modify our behavior to improve our genuiness? I’ll let you in on a highly guarded secret – you do what you already know you should be doing: have a sense about yourself, be yourself, only engage in relationships that you truly care about, listen to others, and show appreciation.

Before you can be genuine you have to know yourself. How well do you know yourself? Have you been doing a job so long that you’ve adopted the persona of the job and lost who you are? What really matters to you? What are your weaknesses? What is your true motivation? Your priorities, values and religious beliefs? How do they fit together and compliment each other? How are they in conflict? How have you actually been living them out on a day to day basis?

Once you have a sense of yourself, you must then be yourself. This is easier written than implemented. In our society we are frequently influenced to be someone we are not. Conforming to societies rules is very important – it is the grease of civilization. However, don’t lose who you are to the rules under which you must live. Stand up for what you think is important. Intentionally and consistently work on goals that are aligned with your values. Socialize with like minded individuals. This does not mean to be narrow minded or limited to new experiences; inclusion is vital to your success. What I’m saying is that you should set the example by doing what is important to you – that is genuine.

The first two points – know yourself and be yourself – were internally focused. The last three are externally focused. First, you should only engage in relationships that you truly care about. People know when you aren’t invested in a relationship. You may have the job as leader, but do you really care about the people? Not just as tools or stepping stones, but as individuals who have personal values and goals like you? Adopt a mindset that enables you to value the relationships with the individuals around you, then build on common values and engage in partnering.

To grow your relationship with someone, you must listen to that person. No really, do you hear what I’m writing here? Listening is difficult because we are constantly thinking about what we want to say, not what the other person is saying. Listening is a learned skill and improved by practice. Stop what you are doing and look at the person, which disengages you from any other activities. Actively listen by paraphrasing back what the other person said to you – ask questions. Can you visualize what the other person is discussing? Observe non-verbal clues like body language and eye movement. Only when you completely understand the other person message should you take the time to consider your response.

The final point, to show appreciation, is well known and goes by many names like “reward and recognition” or “encouraging the heart”. We all like to know when we’ve done something that is appreciated by others. What leaders sometimes fail to recognize is that the act of recognizing the good performance should not overshadow the personal intent of showing the appreciation. Formal awards, cash awards or time off are nice, but if the leader doesn’t actually take the time to say thanks then the opportunity for growth and trust is lost. As pleasant as tangible benefits are, it’s more important to just take the time to personally thank someone on a one-to-one basis. It’s better to be timely and personal with your praise and thanks. Just taking the time to walk down the hall and directly say “thanks for your great report, it really helped us to solve that problem” is being genuine.

Photo credits:
(1) Picture retrieved from,r:61,s:0,i:273.
(2) Picture retrieved from

The Commitment Threshold: It’s Up To You

“The Kamikaze pilot who was able to fly fifty missions was involved –
but never committed.”
~ Lou Holtz (football coach)

Recent events have people talking about the heroism of teachers who stepped up to defend their students. People pose and posture and say “if I had been there” and suggest they would have done something to stop the rampage. The real truth is that until you find yourself in such a situation and on the threshold of commitment, you really don’t know what you’ll do.

There’s a story in our family lore about the time dad stopped a convenience store robbery. At the time, he was building a new house for his family; working his regular job, and then framing walls until the sun went down. To finish a long day he would often drive (wearily) to a 7-Eleven for some fast food and coffee. It was on one of these nights, while stirring milk into a paper cup, that he made a snap decision to commit. Looking back his decision had potentially catastrophic results.

You’re probably familiar with the normal, bland atmosphere of a convenience store: flat fluorescent lighting, racks of packaged goods, a few customers waiting in line to buy bread and milk. That night the scene shifted in an instant as two guys began hassling the clerk. It was unclear why, but the intensity level shifted immediately as the two grabbed the clerk by the hair and began hauling him over the counter. It was then, as he glanced around at the few other customers still shocked and immobile, that dad completed a simple internal dialogue: I guess it’s up to me.

Simple. In the chaos of the moment, absolute clarity. Somehow, in a flash moment, he realized he could change the outcome in a positive way. After a brief scuffle, he and the clerk were able to wrestle the assailants out the doors, lock them, and call the cops. His description of that moment, the moment of decision, has become somewhat of a personal mantra: I guess it’s up to me.

In later years I found myself the first on the scene of a car crash, instructing an injured person to remain still and calm, having already called for first responders and told another passerby to direct traffic. Another time I found myself driving a co-worker to the hospital, his hand bandaged and the finger he had lost in my lunchbox cooler. The specifics leading up to my point of commitment are lost in the chaos, but my subsequent actions flowed from the decision to get personally involved: I guess it’s up to me.

It’s hard to say if such judgement is learned behavior or innate. Dad didn’t talk about it much, but his time in the Army probably gave him a bias for action those other customers didn’t have. With the incident over and the clerk bleeding from several cuts, those customers were still in line. One even asked “can we pay for these now?” Every time we drove by that place we called it “the fight 7-Eleven”. Even decades later and the place now a homemade candy shop, we still call it “the fight 7-Eleven”. The landmark is forever colored by the incident. We always ask ourselves why our father acted and the others just stood there.

We are all faced with situations every day where we must commit. Do I take this gap in traffic? Do I order the chicken or the beef? Do I ask this person to marry me? Do I say yes? Making decisions is part of life. Making good decisions is called judgement. People with naturally good judgement are said to have “common sense”. Good judgement and common sense are not reserved for the lucky few. Judgement can be developed and enhanced – preparation to face the commitment threshold. Preparation makes it easier to assume a leadership role, having already faced the commitment threshold. Properly prepared, you can cross it without a second conscious thought.

Consider these techniques to get past the commitment threshold:

Burn your ships. Legend has it Spanish Conquistador Hernán Cortés landed his 508 soldiers, 100 sailors and 16 horses in southern Mexico and then burned his ships. From that point the Spanish unable to retreat, faced between 5 and 6 million adversaries and were fighting every minute for their lives. In two years they had conquered the Aztecs. While many things contributed to their eventual victory, there was no question about commitment.

Make it public.When you commit to something in public, you instantly build an accountability committee. Somewhat less dramatic but still effective is to write down your commitment, shown by this study to influence a successful outcome.

Reward decisions. The act of deciding something is a behavior. You need to reward it. You must of course celebrate and reward the outcomes of your decisions, but you must absolutely reward the decision itself.

So seek out situations where you bring yourself closer to the commitment threshold. Burn your ships to force action. Discover what public commitment feels like. Reward the act of commitment itself. The time to decide whether you will help stop a convenience store robbery is not when you’re watching the robbery unfold. The time to decide is now. It’s up to you.

Here’s another perspective on commitment. Check out this fun three-minute video and learn some “Leadership Lessons from Dancing Guy” (YouTube link).