Saturday, October 10, 2009
The Executive Leadership Institute recognizes the need of the executives we coach for a low-cost professional development opportunity that allows them to refine their leadership skills, step off stage and onto the balcony to learn some new leadership strategies (and consider how they are leading while on stage) without breaking the bank. Here is our response: a cutting-edge Leadership Webinar Series offered at an all-time low cost:
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Date: Wednesday, November 11, 2009
Session Topic: The Characteristics of an Effective Leader
Date: Wednesday, November 18, 2009
Session Topic: Leading in Challenging Economic Times
Date: Wednesday, December 2, 2009
Session Topic: The Flexible Leader* (Managing People: How to Find the Right Balance Between Flexibility and Control)
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Thursday, October 1, 2009
About two years ago, my sister turned me on to the HBO series ‘Entourage,’ and I became a quick fan. At first, I thought it held my attention because it was a male version of ‘Sex and the City’: it was entertaining to see Hollywood from the inside and watch a likeable guy from Queens try to make his way in tinseltown. After watching more episodes, I realized a much deeper message was holding my attention.
Vincent Chase (Adrian Grenier), the protagonist, is an A-list actor struggling to “make it” in Hollywood. As a writer and leadership coach trying to make my way in two very competitive industries, I initially thought I related to Vince on this level – the pursuit of the American dream. As it turns out, I’m not the only one: ‘Entourage’ is President Obama’s favorite TV show, and he even reschedules important meetings to get his fix. At first, I figured Obama and I shared this drive for beating the odds to become A Number One, Top of the List, King of the Hill. I thought this was our solidarity, and the reason we both tuned into Vince’s next challenge, week after week (actually, I rent the DVDs rather than watch ‘Entourage’ on TV, and I must confess I’ve just finished the third season, so this article really applies to the first few years of the show).
A few weeks ago, I did a leadership conference for 80 sales directors titled “Success vs. Happiness.” The central quote I built the conference around was:
The evening after the conference, I watched another episode of ‘Entourage’ and it hit me: what intrigued me about the show was precisely what I was teaching – Vince has a burning passion to come out on top, but he’s not willing to sacrifice his values or his friends to do so. He has a clear, distinct set of values and will forego opportunities (e.g. movie roles) if they require him to abandon what he believes in.
Vince is also unwaveringly loyal to his friends, all of whom grew up with him in Queens (Executive Producer Mark Wahlberg – whose days as an up-and-coming actor provide the basis for the masterfully-written story-line by Doug Ellin – insisted on only casting actors who grew up in New York), and brings them along with him wherever he goes, sometimes at the price of short-term career gain. (It’s my guess that Obama relates to these guys because they are out of their element trying to navigate a new and complex environment, much as Obama has been doing his whole life, from growing up biracial and bicultural in Hawaii and Indonesia to going to law school in Cambridge to journeying into the belly of the beast to change the entrenched Washington power structure.)
Vince stands by his pizza-boy-cum-manager best friend Eric “E” Murphy (Kevin Connolly) through many of E’s foibles as he grows his sea legs and learns the cutthroat rules of Hollywood. Vince’s brother Johnny “Drama” (Kevin Dillon), a struggling actor who has never experienced anywhere near his level of success, and another childhood friend Salvatore “Turtle” (Jerry Ferrara), help Vince along in his career simply by offering moral support and being unflinchingly loyal to him, as he is to them.
The show’s most valued currency is also the glue that keeps the ‘Entourage’ together: trust. As is the case for any successful leader, Vince makes decisions based on who “has his back.” If anyone breaks this tacit code (such as when his caustic yet endearing agent, Ari – probably the wittiest and most well-acted character on television, played by Jeremy Piven, who has won three Best Supporting Actor Emmys for the role – is not straight with him), they’re out. Yet they may be permitted a return to grace, as Vince has a heart of gold and easily forgives those who trespass against him, which is why we like him so much. Vince’s forgiving nature is reminiscent of The Civil War president who forgave many of his generals for their missteps and allowed Southern states back into the Union with only 10 percent of their citizens taking an oath of loyalty.
‘Entourage’ has its detractors. Vince and the guys have developed commitment-avoidance into a highly refined art form, Drama and Turtle are happy enough to sleep with prostitutes when they hit a dry spell, and Ari is as aggressive with his wife as he is with his clients. Some people, such as a friend of mine who is struggling in his job, argue that Vince has an easier go at success because he has the resources to hire his best friends. While it’s true that the more successful you are the more you can choose who you work with, it’s also true that the more you choose who you work with the more successful you become. Why? Because you choose others who share your core values, and are more likely to build the lasting relationships on which any long-term initiative depends.
Yet here is the greatest lesson of ‘Entourage’ and the reason I decided to write this article: the model of success perpetuated by the series, while at first glance prototypical of the American Dream, is boldly countercultural in the third millenium. Vince wants to win, but not at the expense of having fun and being there for the people he cares about along the way. The show’s tag-line, Maybe you can have it all, actually says it all: you can have it all – success, happiness, work-life balance, and family and friends that care about you and grow with you – as long as you prevent your drive for success from getting in the way of your happiness.
One of our greatest historical icons for this type of leadership was Ernest Shackleton, the British navy captain whose voyage to Antarctica a century ago in the hopes of becoming the first to traverse the continent’s 1,800-mile distance by foot was derailed a thousand miles south of Buenos Aires when his ship became pickled in an iceberg.
Another English captain, Robert Scott, had set out to discover the South Pole two years before Shackleton’s voyage. Despite the protests of his men because the trip was taking longer than expected and there was a scarcity of rations, he insisted on continuing. Scott did in fact reach the South Pole in January 1912. He found a note there left thirty-five days earlier by Norway’s Roald Amundsen. Scott and all his men perished on the return journey.
Unlike Scott, Shackleton placed the safety of his crew first and foremost. He designed a meticulous daily schedule on the iceberg that included regular meal times, daily games and recreation – which created a semblance of order. Those with high egos he flattered; those who fell ill he personally nursed back to health; those who were easily bored he gave very clear tasks to complete. Shackleton built a library in an igloo, and held ‘parties’ during the long Arctic nights where his men wrote and read poetry.
As a result of Shackleton’s empathetic and inclusive leadership style, at a time of frequent deaths to scurvy and other diseases, he kept every single one of his twenty-eight crew members alive for over two years until they were rescued. Furthermore, every single man returned to England in good physical and mental health. Shackleton did not, in the end, achieve his goal of traversing Antarctica. That didn’t matter: his goal was never just to win, but to win “honorably and splendidly.”
Vincent Chase also refuses to win unless he does it honorably. He stands in juxtaposition to the modern American success model: the Lone Ranger, the go-it-alone rugged capitalist who will spare no one in their attempt to achieve their goals. The Enron execs, the Bernie Madoffs and the Wall Street titans who paid themselves 400 times what their service reps earned and then siphoned their bonuses from our tax dollars are our modern-day apparitions of Robert Scott. Their focus on status and financial gain was so singular that many of them became alienated from their friends, families and themselves in their relentless pursuit of the next thing. While they may have built a name for themselves, for most there was no one whom they hadn’t become estranged from to take pride in it; they earned a brittle, silent trophy to gaze at alone.
The American Dream has become, for many, the American Nightmare. In our Kurtzian drive to become successful – abetted by our laptops and crackberries and the spiritual isolation modern society wrecks upon those who fail to unhinge the shackles of the never-ending quest for task completion – we lose our capacity to relax and spend time with the people we care about; to laugh; to appreciate the little things that make life livable; to recover from vigorous activity and take vacations; to be involved in our community. In other words, we lose all the things that bring happiness.
There is a Mexican expression: “There is no point in living if you can’t feel your life.” When we focus on success at all costs, we lose our ability to feel. We gain material things yet we cannot feel or enjoy their presence. Why? We have lost sight of our presence.
Whenever Vince or one of his buddies faces a difficult challenge, they share it with another member of the ‘Entourage’. Sure, they are guys and share their deeper issues as guys tend to do – indirectly, with a few expletives and sexual references thrown in for good measure. But they get them out on the table. How many of us can say the same? And if we don’t have someone to talk to when the going gets tough, what use is our success? We’re stuck in auto-pilot chasing an award, yet we’re in the wrong contest.
How many of us even stop to eat a healthy breakfast with the people we care about, as Vince and his buddies do each morning? We pass up this and most of the other potentially human moments in our day in the hopes of achieving something greater. So what is waiting for us at the end of the tunnel? Few genuine friendships, a nasty divorce(s), little to no relationships with our kids (who, when we have our mid-life crisis and try to replenish those relationships, are likely to respond, “Who are you? You weren’t here when I needed you. Why should I now be here for you?”), money that generates more fear (of losing it) than joy (from spending it), and, last but not least, a trophy partner who understands us only as much as they need to.
When I observe President Obama’s relentless drive to make a name for himself: to be the president to finally provide universal health care, to reengineer America’s damaged reputation as global war-monger and playground bully, to revitalize an economy ravaged by a lack of government oversight of the housing and financial industries; and then I see one of those moments where he stops and brandishes that smile that instantly captivates a room, or makes a joke, or takes a week off to take his wife and kids to Martha’s Vineyard, or says “Hey guys, let’s work out these (perennial racial) differences over a beer,” I finally get it. I understand why he watches ‘Entourage’ each week, and the new brand of success he and Vincent Chase are propagating in this country.