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National Leader of the Month for June 2008

 Eileen McDargh

Eileen McDargh, CSP, CPAE

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Honoring Eileen McDargh

Eileen McDargh recognizes the impact of metaphorically painting a picture, and she is adept at using examples in our world to bring a canvas to life. She offers a self-deprecating tale to illustrate the importance of taking the time to evaluate the issues you are presented with before jumping in with two feet.

When we are presented with crisis, itís a learning point and an opportunity for growth.

A number of years ago one Saturday, I was in my house drying my hair and all of sudden the fire alarm went off. I was alone in the house, and if youíve ever heard your fire alarm go off, you know darn well youíll never sleep through that sucker. I grabbed a chair and I climbed up to where the fire alarm was, and the noise hurt my ears so much I just wanted to turn that thing off. There was no "off" switch that I could see, and I jumped down and called my husband at his office. I said, ďHow do I do this?Ē He answered, ďIf you donít see an 'off' switch, then pull the batteries out.Ē So I climbed back on the chair again, and I yanked the batteries out. The unit was dangling by these three wires, and the alarm was still going off.

I thought to myself, "This is nuts!" I called my husband again, and this time he said, ďCut the wires.Ē I exclaimed, ďCut the wires? What about the electricity?Ē He said, ďWell itís only nine volts.Ē I thought, ďEasy for you to say. Iím the one standing up there, hacking at those wires.Ē Anyway, I cut the red wire and the yellow wire, and still the alarm was going off. It was just hanging by one little wire. All of a sudden, with my hands over my ears, I climbed off the chair and walked down to the end of our hall to another bedroom. I took a chair and climbed up to where there is another fire alarm. I opened up that fire alarm, yanked on the battery, and it stopped.

I turned around, and there dangling by one wire was the fire alarm at the end of our bedroom. It didnít hurt anybody, but I had just the killed the wrong fire alarm. I thought to myself, "Eileen, how many times have you done that? You didnít gather all the information." It was a lesson for me, and it might be a lesson for some other folks.

For the positive imagery she creates--and her leadership contributions--Eileen McDargh is the National Leader of the Month for June 2008.

About Eileen McDargh

Author, Speaker, and Consultant

Favorite quote: I think Joan Baez says it best: ďYou donít determine how you die: You only determine how you will live.Ē

In general, are we doing a good job in America of determining how we will live? Are we focused on things that we should be or not?...Iím very discouraged about us as a national profile. We have infrastructure thatís falling down, schools that donít work, and a healthcare delivery system that is tremendously flawed. I saw one statistic that indicated more children die in the Louisiana Delta than in Bangladesh. We are not doing well as a nation in living that life.... Is it any wonder that in this current election you see an undercurrent of change regardless of who is saying it. We know some things are broken, and we need to do something about them.

Favorite book: The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch. Iíll tell you why I love it. As a speaker, it makes me ask: "What would be my last speech if this was the only chance I had to talk?" What I think Randy has done is teach us not only about how to die, but heís really spoken about how to live. I think everyone has a leadership role to play. You might not have a title, but youíve got a leadership role to play. Thatís why we say, "How do you lead your life?" We donít say, "Play your life," or "work your life." We say, "How do you lead your life?" All leadership starts from the inside out. What Randy has done is brilliantly said, "What is important to me, and how do I live in a way that is congruent?" That is also something we desperately need within our organizations and our enterprises.

Has the need for personal leadership changed in the last couple of decades or has that been constant? I think it has shifted, and part of the [reason] is our capacity for greed. [It is disturbing] when you pick up the paper, and you see how a number of CEOs in the United States have this gross inequity [in terms of] what they are paid versus what the rank and file is paid. A number of these folks have been rewarded for basically lousy performance. The stock has taken a nose dive, and [some CEO's are] walking away with a potful of money.

...I think what we, as Americans, are yearning for is wisdom. We are yearning for leaders in the truest sense of the word. [We are yearning for] the servant leader: the leader that Jim Collins talks about who moves the organization from good to great. That leader does it not for self aggrandizement but because he or she realizes that when everybody looks good, we all look good. Itís not about me but about us and what we create together. I was just with a company, Novo Nordisk. This is a bio-pharmaceutical company that operates on an equally-weighted triple bottom line: economic viability, social responsibility, and environmental integrity. Thatís [an example of] what I think is true forward-thinking leadership.

Books recommended for aspiring leaders: The Art of Possibility: Transforming Professional and Personal Life by Benjamin Zander. I love this book because [Benjamin Zander] is an orchestra leader and a music teacher. He conducts the orchestra and helps the students take responsibility for their lives in the classroom in order to achieve their desired outcome. I think a leader does that: creates a way for people to tap and "own" their responsibilities for the outcome. Itís not up to me to take care of you: itís for me to provide a vision (a place where you feel compelled to perform). Also, I do love Jim Collins's book Good to Great, and I also like Peter Blockís book, The Answer to How is Yes.

Personal passion: My personal passion is this: How do I help individuals and organizations unleash the very best of what theyíve got? How do we grow the human talents that we have around us?

Dream: I would love to be able to create a show that replicates Dave Garroway's [television show in the 1950s]. It was called Wide Wide World. Dave Garroway introduced you to pieces of the world that you didnít know about.

I would love to create a show entitled Our World and Welcome to It. In would celebrate what is right with the world, what is creative, what is thought-provoking, what is uplifting. In many cases, what we see in the reality shows is all the things that are wrong: individuals striving for individual effort and people making fools of themselves. To me, [that type of programming] showcases some of the worst of the human spirit. Wouldnít it be wonderful if there was a show that took people around the globe, so that we broke down the barriers of misunderstanding? In this program, we could show what happens in countries that we donít understand, and we could show what happens that is "right" in the United States instead of what is wrong. It would allow people to see the best of what we can be...

Thoughts on traveling: I think the best way of traveling and going to places is not as the tourist in the cozy, comfort world but as a person who comes as an anthropologist and inquirer. I think there is just so much wisdom to get out of it. This past year we trekked to remote provinces of the Himalayas, close to the India-Pakistan border. We were some of the few Westerners to be in that location, unlike people who line up to discover Everest. We went to be with those folks, and I learned so much.

I used to say I wanted to go to Machu Picchu; however, now there is another site that they have just uncovered that is similar to Machu Picchu but on another mountain. Itís not been well known, and Iíd love to see that. I would also love to see the Terracotta soldiers of China. They have always intrigued me. Iíd also love to study Spanish in San Miguel de Allende.

Thoughts on your mentors: The first boss I had after I left the field of education was Jeff Nixon at Amelia Island Plantation. He was absolutely a marvelous leader. He had a way of describing the outcome of what he wanted and then stepping back to let you figure out how to make it happen. He was always available if you needed input or advice; he would move boulders for you, but basically you owned [your outcomes].

One of the biggest lessons I recall was on how to give corrective feedback to someone. I was responsible for mailing out this very important opening invitation of Amelia Island Plantation. We had 850 property owners at that time, and it was a critical piece that I was supposed to take care of. These lists were developed by the sales executives who were selling parcels of land or homes. About a week before this grand opening, one of the sales guys named John came up to me and said, ďEileen none of my folks have gotten their invitation.Ē I said, ďThatís impossible, Iíve done it.Ē He replied, ďWell they havenít gotten it.Ē I opened up my file, and donít ask me how, but I did not have his list. The list just disappeared off the planet.

I had to go to my boss, Jeff, and say, ďJeff, I donít know what happened, but I screwed up.Ē So he said, ďOk Iíll be right back.Ē I heard him walk around the hall, go over to the sales side, and I heard him say to John, ďHey John, weíve screwed up. Youíre right. Your folks didnít get it, but weíll make it better.Ē Jeff came back, and I looked at him and said, ďJeff, we didnít screw up. I screwed up.Ē He looked up with a funny smile and said, ďAnd it will never happen again! But you are right. Come onóIíll help you.Ē We sent telegrams to all of Johnís people, and Jeff was there in the office, working with me on sending out the invitations that had not gone out. Jeff did not make me bear the heat alone: He walked through it with me, showed me how to get out of it, and then helped me fix it. He never had to say another word, but if that guy had asked me to walk through hot coals I would have. That was such a powerful lesson to me.

For a period of time I was involved with Ken Blanchard at the Blanchard Company. Ken is a marvelous example of a leader who absolutely is congruent in what he says and what he does. Working with his company has been a lovely influence.

Neil Dempster shares the following thoughts on the leadership of Eileen McDargh: "Eileen McDargh understands that real leadership is different than authority. Although I have worked with her several times where she had the 'rank,' she never used the title to influence others--instead, she inspired others to follow. She is thoughtful and considerate, and knows just when to intervene when the team needs some help. Her leadership is comprised of personal skill and ability and a huge dose of scarily-accurate intuition. She is naturally chosen by the group to lead (which is a great validation of how she is seen by others!)."

Eileen McDargh and Leadership

Advice to aspiring leaders: I think you have to lead yourself first [and focus on] your own ethics and your own integrity. What is meaningful for you? I believe all leadership should come from the inside out and not from the outside in. How are you leading your own life?

Secondly, I think you should be willing to make [difficult] decisions...

Thirdly, I think a great leader is someone who allows others to be great. Itís never about me: itís about what we will create together. However, as a leader, I can give you a clear a picture. Then, you can start filling in the blanks with your own words that excite you. I think really good leaders are marvelous picture makers and storytellers. It is not [some] mission statement that is three paragraphs long...Itís really that I can create [a compelling image] of what is possible for us: a preferred future that the people around me say, ďI get it. Here is what would make that more exciting for me, and if itís okay, I'll add this piece, and you can add that piece.Ē

...I think really good leaders also are forthcoming [in explaining things such as,] "This is what I know, and this is what I donít know. If I figure this out, Iíll let you know, but if you figure something out, you tell me." The way you keep people in the dark is when you are treating them like mushrooms. I always like to deal with pictures [and treat people like they are] strawberries. Strawberries need sunlight and rot and die if they are covered in black.

[I was involved as a leader in a project where we needed to create a sense of community at the Naval Trident Subase in Bangor, Washington.] We created an internal newsletter called Strawberry Shorts. We shared what every department knew, so everybody knew what everyone else was doing. [We made sure everyone knew] what it was that you were celebrating, and what it was that you were doing right. [We focused on] how to cross-fertilize each otherís ideas. We cross-sold all the activities everybody had, and we wore little strawberries on our lapels. You had to be able to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. There is a saying that you can tell people something that they need to hear, but you can do it in such a way that you can step on their shoes but not mess the shine. Thatís what you need, and thatís what you can do. [It all comes down to] creating a picture where people say, ďOkay thatís how we need to behave.Ē

Is there a metaphor, a story or an analogy that you can offer about leadership in general? I am always looking for great metaphors that teach me. On my website there are two articles that I wrote about canoeing the boundary waters as a metaphor for leadership. In another article I authored, I use the garden as reference point. Let me tell you why I chose the garden. I was asked to speak to a major Fortune 100 company that was going through significant turmoil transition, and there were going to be hard choices. Part of those hard choices was that some people who had been there a long time needed to go. I kept thinking, "What in the world can I say to them?"

Then, I was out working in my yard. If you looked at my yard at that time, it had an absolutely glorious bed of impatiens, a multi-colored flower. When you went up close to the flower and the wind blew, you realized that the bloom was on the tip of a twelve-inch stalk that had nothing to it. The only way that garden would grow was if I cut back what was the most prominent flower there. I needed to allow the new growth to [take place]. I thought to myself, "Thatís what happens to an organization." So I began thinking, "How should one feed, seed and weed?" Feeding, seeding and weeding has a lot to do with cutting, but you have to be able to cut judiciously. Youíve got to know where to cut. You donít come in and take a hacksaw and go out to the garden. Also, [you keep in mind that] certain plants grow in certain places. How foolish of me to try to plant a shade plant out in the full sun, but we do that in an organization. Iíve got people who will bloom perfectly for me out of the limelight. I push them into the limelight, and thatís not where they grow their talent. I have to know what to feed what. Some people strive on a challenging assignment, thinking, "Just get out of my way and let me do it." Other people strive when they know they are behind the scenes, and they can watch their team grow. I think leaders are really aware that this is a garden of variegated color and kinds of plants. You have to know when to weed and what no longer adds value anymore. You've got to know your season and grow your season.

Can you expand upon your statement to "know your season and grow your season"? If I put a product in the marketplace and itís not time, Iím out of the season. I have to know when it is the optimum time to make shifts in my business. I have to know at what point in time do we need to grow this one department. For example, right now when you see people doing cutbacks in business, often times they cutback in places like the customer service reps. At the very time I want customers to come in and feel heard and served, what are you doing? You are getting rid of the people who serve them. They are my frontline to deal with the customer. If a customer canít find anybody to answer the questions that they have, they are out of there. On the flipside, I was just in the Apple store. I have never seen so many employees in one store in my life. If you want a question answered, they are absolutely there. They have figured out how to create an experience for the people...Because of the way in which they have operated, I went out and bought an iPhone. I am technologically incompetent, but I know there is a place I can go to and get help.

So when I say, "Know your season and grow your season," what is it for you to do your business? Which people serve as your business face to the customer? If you have a cyclical business, it costs more to retool and to retrain than to pull back some of those employees. Where is it that I can put them temporarily so that they can learn another part of the business? Then, when the season comes around, I have them primed and ready to go...

Most admired leaders: Jimmy Carter. He has shown us what a former president is all about and what true leadership looks like. He didnít sit back and go and make speeches and get a ton of money from them. He doesnít just sit around and play golf. This is a man who said, "There is still work to be done." [He has done that work] through his Carter Institute or in his work with Habitat for Humanity. I think he has provided a wonderful example of ongoing leadership.

Steve Piersanti. He is the founder of Berrett-Koehler Publishers. Berrett-Koehler Publishers is an anomaly in the publishing world. Their motto is to create a world that works for all. I have never seen a publisher spend such diligent time being so careful about what books they publish...They donít print a-hundred-and-one books, throw them up against the wall, and see what sticks. I am so thrilled that my new book, Gifts from the Mountain is out through Berrett-Koehler. Steve Piersantiís great organization sees his authors not a competitors but as collaborators. We have an authorsí co-op in which we get together and share ideas. We have access to buy any of the books at a discounted rate. Thereís an authorsí retreat so that you can learn and grow from each other. You wonít see that, Iím sure, in many of the large publishing houses. So I think Steve Piersanti is an amazing leader.

Quint Studer of The Studer Group. I havenít met him, but I followed behind him working with some of the healthcare organizations. Quint did some remarkable turnarounds in hospital settings...He has since created a consulting company that works with the hospitals on a what they call the Studer Principles Colors of Success; they are both numbers' driven, but they are absolutely leader driven. I think he developed an amazing process for that.

Susan Whittaker Mullins, my sister. Susan is one of the co-founders of Mediators Across Borders. She creates and leads groups in ways that just leaves me breathless. She created an after-school tutoring program. Also, my sister was involved for a long time with the television industry in Hollywood, and she realized that when there were down periods of time, there were very bright and brilliant people who werenít being used, and there were schools that needed after-school mentoring for kids and teachers. She created a way to put together folks from her Hollywood community with schools and match them up. I find her an absolutely brilliant role model...

Traits most important in a leader: One is humility. Humility comes from the word humus. If you think about humus, humus is the wonderful rich earth that allows things to grow. Humility is actually not only lowering your own horn but being a person that allows other people to grow. This is consistent [with the notion that] great leaders bring out the best in other people. It is the ability to capture vision and to become a storyteller. It is the ability to inspire people, not to motivate. Motivation is like dandruff: itís in your head. If someone says, ďOh we need a motivational speaker,Ē I say, ďOh no you donít!Ē Managers say, ďI have to motivate my people.Ē No, you donít! You canít do it: You donít know how to do it. Itís up to people to motivate themselves. However, by your words and behavior, you can create a climate that gives people hope that inspires. To be inspired is to be in spirit with that which is. [You need to ask yourself], "What will I do that people will say, 'Now I see what is possible and this draws me out.'" So I think great leaders also inspire people.

Important advice you have been given: I think great leaders also have to be extraordinary listeners. I am concerned about this which is why I wrote one of my books, Talk Ain't Cheap...It's Priceless! I think that we have become so enamored with our technology and so overwhelmed by the speed which we think things have to happen--notice I say, think things have to happen. We have forgotten the most appropriate and most compelling way that we connect as human beings: thatís in conversation. By conversation, I mean that which is done at the very least ear to ear if not face to face (not conversation sent over an email).

When I wrote Gifts from the Mountain, I actually wrote free downloadable conversation fire starters: one for leaders, one for coaches, and one for community members. [My aim was] to ask some critical questions about each one of the learning points in the book so as to drive conversation deeper within organizations. I think the new mantra has to be "Start Talking and Get to Work." That talking includes being able to be a critical listener; by critical, I donít mean criticizing but rather analyzing. Itís our inability to listen to each other that has led to some of the disasters that weíve seen.

What is up next for you? Iíve had this mantra that Iíve been working on for the last two years: to play bigger in a world of possibilities for a world of difference. I find myself still playing too small. In playing bigger, literally on a bigger stage, how do I impact more people? With a colleague, we have trademarked In Her Own Voice and will create seminars and training materials to allow women to claim their own voice.

Iím working on another concept for a book about women and leadership. If you look at some of the new marketing literature that is coming out, women are 51% of the buying population. Therefore, we have a huge role to play: Itís not righting the power balance; itís getting the world right again. Iím quite concerned in a world that seems so violent that women and children bare the brunt of the violence, the brunt of war, and the brunt of economic downturn. The more we can help women rise to leadership positions, [the more] benefit [we will all gain].

Another thing that has always intrigued me is the work-life integration. How do I put together the work that I do and the life that I lead and grow it whole?

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