The Thrill Is Gone: B. B. King and Leadership

BBKing_02092010_7670It was sad to wake up to the news Friday morning that B.B. King had passed away during the night. Not that it was unexpected: after he cancelled his tour last fall, then went on hospice care a few weeks ago, we knew the end was near. But it makes you feel blue to lose a hero.

Riley B. King was a pioneer in electric blues. He had the purest tone of any guitarist I have ever heard. He had a smooth, flowing style of playing, and could say more in two notes than many guitarists can say in thousands (and I said that before Lenny Kravitz did!). He helped to bring a beautiful ethnic art form to millions around the world. This white boy is very grateful for the blues.

But he also provided some valuable leadership lessons to us through his music and his work with other musicians. Let’s look at what seems significant to me.

First, and foremost, B.B. was an example of collaborative leadership. In concert, he frequently played with other guitarists who idolize him. If you have ever watched a group of blues guitarists play together, it is a tremendous show of collaboration. Each plays in a different register, and they defer to each other as they take their solos.

In these situations, the respect everyone had for B.B. was obvious. They deferred to him, but he gave it right back. 0He played with everybody and looked like he enjoyed doing it. In these group situations, he did not demand the spotlight: he shared it. Frequently the solo of another guitarist received an immediate compliment from him. That’s another good lesson!

Second, B.B. was not ego-driven. He was frequently introduced as the King of the Blues, but he didn’t let it go to his head. He said: “I just wonder where I was when the talent was being given out, like George Benson, Kenny Burrell, Eric Clapton… oh, there’s many more! I wouldn’t want to be like them, you understand, but I’d like to be equal, if you will.” But Jimmy Vaughan said that B.B. was the guitarist they were all trying to sound like – without success. Frequently during his shows, he would ask for the audience’s permission to solo: “Can I play Lucille now?” That doesn’t sound like a proud musician.

Third, he was an outstanding mentor. He loved playing with young musicians and did all he could to encourage the next generation of blues artists. He gladly shared the spotlight with them. Many experienced leaders could stand to learn from that example.

Fourth, like most blues musicians of his era, he worked hard in order to make it, and worked hard even after he had made it. During one year in the early sixties, he played 340 one-night stands! He developed his talents and worked around his weaknesses, and achieved mastery of his art. He once said “It seems like I always had to work harder than other people. Those nights when everybody else is asleep, and you sit in your room trying to play scales.” He didn’t take his talents for granted.

Fifth, like many blues musicians of his era, he faced the challenges of racism and prejudice. And he didn’t hold grudges. He said “When people treat you mean, you dislike them for that, but not because of their person, who they are. I was born and raised in a segregated society, but when I left there, I had nobody I disliked other than the people that’d mistreated me, and that only lasted for as long as they were mistreating me.”

In spite of it all, he maintained a sense of humor, and he used his music to bring people of all races together. And that is the magic of good music: it has the power to unite humanity.

Finally, he had an interesting attitude to being on the road. Instead of partying, gambling, and other vices displayed by some musicians, B.B. made an effort to improve himself. Once the internet was generally available, he would carry a laptop on tour and study new things as he traveled. He even learned how to use a computer. He took great pride in that. He said “The beautiful thing about learning is nobody can take it away from you.”

Even though I never saw B.B. King in person, and was not privileged to meet the great man, he touched my life in many ways. I will always be grateful for the music he added to the soundtrack of my life, and for the lessons he taught me.

Some parting words of advice from B.B.:

“You better not look down if you want to keep on flying
Put the hammer down keep it full speed ahead
You better not look back or you might just wind up crying
You can keep it moving if you don’t look down.”[1]
[1] Better Not Look Down. Jennings, Will and Sample, Joe. © Universal Music Publishing Group.

Tribute to a remarkable leader

Dr Pumerantz

Recently, Dr. Philip Pumerantz, President of Western University of Health Sciences, announced his retirement. Even though I have not had the privilege of working directly with him, my nearly six years of contact with him as an employee have provided some valuable lessons.

Dr. Pumerantz founded Western University, starting with the humble beginnings of the College of Osteopathic Medicine of the Pacific in 1977. In the intervening years, the university has grown to include nine colleges of various health science disciplines.WesternU

These colleges form a well-integrated, innovative university. We have been a pioneer in interprofessional education in the health sciences. But each college is also making a name for itself within its own discipline in health education. Our College of Dental Medicine, where I am employed, is a trendsetter in dental education.

Our clinic facility includes clinics for dentistry, podiatric medicine, osteopathic medicine (family practice), optometry, and an interdisciplinary diabetes center, along with a full-service pharmacy. Each is manned by students who are guided by capable faculty and staff.

All of this is noteworthy enough, but by itself, it would not motivate me to consider a tribute. Rather, it is the man himself, Dr. Pumerantz, who inspired me to write this. I believe that we as leaders can learn much from this great man.

Allow me to share what has been most significant to me.

Dr. Pumerantz is a man of vision: he is always looking beyond the horizon. He has surrounded himself with capable men and women who have caught his vision and have helped him to make it a reality. Many of these individuals are innovators in their own right, and have been given the freedom to develop excellence in their own programs.

He is appreciative. Each year, on the anniversary of my hire, I receive a thank you note. This was a very pleasant surprise at the end of my first year. In conversations with us, he seems to find something to thank us for. His attitude helps me to realize that my contributions do not go unnoticed.

He has created a culture of friendship among all university employees. For lack of a better term, he has fostered a “Hilton culture” at WesternU, where nearly everyone is happy to help out. Whether it is the maintenance crew, the mailroom staff, security, doctors, or anyone else: we all greet one another and treat each other well. This culture was well established before I joined the faculty, and that made it easier for me to adjust to academia.

Dr. Pumerantz is an example of community involvement and community service. Indeed, this is a key point of our success. We put on health fairs and screenings and serve in many other ways. Applying students must show a track record of service in order to be admitted! Not the least noteworthy here is how we as a university have helped to revitalize downtown Pomona. Because of what Dr. Pumerantz has done in the community, I was once thanked by the Mayor of Pomona for all the good we do for the city.

Dr. Pumerantz is approachable. He doesn’t stay in his ivory tower. He will go out of his way to chat with any of us. Many university presidents can’t be bothered with that. He embodies the principle of MBWA: management by walking around. Many of my co-workers have told stories of kind conversations with him.

Frequently when I have been out walking, I have heard him call out “Hello, Professor!” He always had questions about how I was doing, how my family was, how the College was doing – he showed an interest. And I always felt appreciated.

At a social event, he stopped me, my wife and my daughter, and praised my efforts in building the university. At that point my daughter wanted to be a veterinarian. When he heard that, he made an effort to track down an administrator who could be a key contact for her. He was unable to locate the individual, but his effort and his concern were very much appreciated.

Dr. Pumerantz is known for his hospitality. He has hosted various events for faculty and staff during the academic year. During our orientation week, which he calls Welcome Week, he and his wife host an ice cream social because they want to greet all the incoming students and thank them for coming here. For many years this was held in his back yard, until we became too big. Now it is held on campus. But in spite of poor health, they continue to attend.

And following our opening ceremonies at the end of welcome week, he hosts a barbeque for the new students and their families, along with faculty and staff.

Finally, I have never heard Dr. Pumerantz speak publicly without praising his wife, Harriet. She has been his partner and his support, and has shared all of his achievements. He is quick to point out that he would not be where he is without her. If each of us were as quick to praise our spouses, this would be a better world.

I don’t want to claim that he can walk on water: I only know what I have seen; but I have seen enough to make me admire this great man as a leader and as a good person.

We tend to become like those whom we admire if we really look at why we admire them. A leader chooses his or her heroes carefully.

I have a deep sense of gratitude for the privilege I have had to work with Dr. Philip Pumerantz, and for the example he has provided to us. His legacy is one that will benefit all of us.

A Culture of Negativity?

What kind of culture do you intend to create as a leader? This is a pivotal question, not just for the new leader, but for all leaders to ponder. As a part of the strategizing process, it is a question that should be carefully considered.

Do you just want to let nature take its course? It’s your call.

Do you want to create a culture of collaboration and friendly competition? Great!

Do you want to ramp it up beyond that? Fine.

It is up to you to determine the course. If you do not, it could easily go in the wrong direction.

Can you accurately describe to your team why this is important to them? And to you?

What will you do to nurture that kind of culture?

Will your attitudes and actions not just reflect but model your plans?

The pilot who files a flight plan does not simply fly from point A to point B. Frequent course corrections are required to compensate for wind, weather and natural obstacles. In a large plane, a copilot and frequently a navigator assist in these corrections.

In the same way, a good leader must also consistently make course corrections with his team.

How will you make these corrections?

Do you want a culture of negativity in your organization?

Look to the pilot and his team as they navigate along their flight path.

Except in notably rare occasions, they function well as a team in keeping the plane on course. The co-pilot points out potential obstacles or weather formations that should be avoided. They assist each other in making decisions to keep on course. When the plane drifts off course, as it will, they do not berate each other; they simply identify and execute the needed corrections and get back on the intended course.

In a culture of negativity, the focus changes. The vision of the destination becomes obscured as everyone looks at what was done instead of what will be done. It is impossible to stay on course while focusing on where you’ve been.

Negativity always impedes forward progress.

Leaders, are you encouraging a negative or a positive culture?

Is a course correction needed to get you to your intended destination?

You are the pilot; take the stick.

Let It Go?

In some of my leadership roles in church, I have had the opportunity to counsel with individuals who have made serious mistakes in their lives. The objective of this counseling is to help them get their lives back in order.

Most of these individuals are eager to make the needed changes; some resist. Challenges, assignments and advice are given; accountability, which is often lacking, is created. And occasional relapses occur.

Every so often, I encounter an individual who seems to want to make all the mistakes on his own: he is either unwilling or unable to learn from advice or from the mistakes of others.

I had a friend who called these individuals “sleds.” He said that you expend significant time and energy pulling them uphill, but as soon as you stop pulling, they start to slide downhill again.

You may have encountered such sleds in your organization. How do you deal with these people? I would suggest these six steps:

    Timely, specific correction is more easily connected with the incident. And stay focused. Don’t bring up everything else that has gone wrong: this is counterproductive.
    Even miracles take time. The individual cannot progress unless he knows which steps should be taken to get back on track, and has some checkpoints to measure progress.
    Except in extremely serious situations, it is usually best to give some warnings. And these consequences should be enforced!
    A mentor, or simply someone to be accountable to is frequently helpful in overcoming problems. This is especially true when an addiction is the problem. When progress is slow, appropriate encouragement is helpful. And many times, changing the mentor can make all the difference in the world: inserting another personality into the mix can change the dynamics for the better. Create accountability!
    Progress checks, both scheduled and random, are vital. If you are not going to follow up, don’t waste time and energy of either party in giving correction. Your people will receive the message that you aren’t serious about your suggestions if they never see progress checks.
    The penalty should fit the infraction. And because people talk within your organization (I hope), there should be some consistency from person to person.

Of course, not all your people will come through for you. If the sled won’t take care of its own propulsion, sometimes you just have to let go and allow it to slide to the bottom.

Decisive action requires courage. Give yourself time for a gut check (or very often, some time to cool down) before you take action. Think it through. A planned response will create fewer regrets.

Remember Sisyphus. A leader must know when to stop pulling (or pushing).

Unwarranted Confidence, or Too Dumb to Know that I’m Dumb


I was recently introduced to a fascinating psychological concept known as the Dunning Kruger Effect.[1] One reason it grabbed my attention was that John Cleese, of Monty Python fame, was the one who introduced it to me. You may not be aware that Cleese is a Visiting Professor at Cornell University, where he lectures on the creative process, among other things. Wouldn’t you love to take classes from him?

Cleese describes the effect: “in order to know how good you are at something requires exactly the same skills as it does to be good at that thing in the first place. Which means, and this is terribly funny, that if you are absolutely no good at something at all, then you lack exactly the skills that you need to know that you’re absolutely no good at it.” He adds “You see, if you are very, very stupid, how can you possibly realize that you are very, very stupid? You’d have to be relatively intelligent to realize how stupid you are.”[2]

The Dunning Kruger Effect is a phenomenon where unskilled individuals rate their own abilities much higher than they really are, simply because they lack the skills to properly evaluate their own skills. This idea has been validated in well-constructed studies measuring self-awareness of social, logical and grammatical skills. Statistical analysis showed that the effect held true in each of these unrelated areas. Another portion showed that when individuals received some training in the subject material, their ability to self-assess improved significantly.[3]

This has been compared to the “Lake Wobegon Effect,” as stated by Garrison Keillor: “where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.” Without proper feedback, everyone views themselves as above average. And most of us realize that this is a mathematical impossibility. Of course, there is no research to substantiate this effect.

What does this mean for leaders? How can we apply this? If the unskilled cannot accurately evaluate their own performance, how can we expect them to function better? The leader must invest time and effort in training the people he leads if he expects his organization to move forward. It may be argued that only the leader’s investment in himself or herself is more important.

This training may also be delegated to other capable individuals. But the unskilled must have good mentors! And the mentors also need regular guidance.

I believe that this is why so many leaders choose to micromanage: to them, it seems simpler to manage everything themselves than to train their followers. In like manner, it is much quicker for a parent to do household chores than to take the time to help their children learn. But the time invested pays big dividends.

This is a lesson that a teacher should understand well. As our dental students begin to learn dental skills, I have noticed that it is difficult for them to evaluate their work, but as they progress, their evaluation skills tend to improve. And it is absolutely critical that they learn to accurately self-assess before they receive their degrees! I will never forget the morning a new third-year student received a start check to perform just his second restorative procedure on a live patient. With an air of confidence, he told the attending faculty “In my experience this is very straightforward.” I wonder if he still feels that way.

And added challenge for the leader is that the incompetent are generally unable to recognize competence in others. Based on the work of Dunning, it becomes imperative that we make sure that those whom we lead have sufficient training to do what is expected of them. If we fail to provide that training, we are preparing our organization for failure. Individual growth leads to organizational growth.

A good leader trains his people.

“The doorstep to the temple of wisdom is a knowledge of our own ignorance.” 

-Benjamin Franklin

[1] Dunning, D., et al. (2003). Why People Fail to Recognize Their Own Incompetence. Current Direction in Psychological Science, 12:3, 83-87.

[2] YouTube. John Cleese On Stupidity,

[3] Kruger, J., & Dunning, D. (1999). Unskilled and unaware of it: How difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77, 1121–1134.

The Resolution Not Written (is only a wish)

The New Year symbolizes a new beginning. Even though nothing has actually changed: Thursday follows Wednesday just as in any other week. But the New Year can motivate each of us to make needed changes in our lives. Without this perceived change we would lack that motivation.

New Year’s resolutions date back to Roman times, when vows were made to the god Janus (January’s namesake) to be kinder to others, in return for success in the coming year. I am not aware of how well this worked. Some say the origin of making New Year’s resolutions rests with the Babylonians, who reportedly made promises to the gods in hopes they’d earn good favor in the coming year. They often resolved to get out of debt (sound familiar?).

In America, the Puritans encouraged their children to skip the parties and spend their time reflecting on the old year and contemplating the new year. Like the Romans, the resolutions were mostly of a moral nature. This habit became engrained in American tradition, particularly the Protestant ethic, and survives to this day. However, the nature of the resolutions has changed over the years.

I have never been a big fan of New Year’s resolutions. The general attitude is that they are made just to be broken, and what’s the sense in that? In January, the gyms are full for a few weeks, then the crowds taper off. In like manner, the restaurants with good salad bars are also crowded in January. People desire to make the desired changes, but lack the willpower to continue once the original motivation fades.

My habit has been to set goals around my birthday each year (another somewhat arbitrary change that we measure) and review and revise them at New Years. That has worked best for me.

I recently ran across a blog post from Chris Taylor, entitled Planning to Plan. Chris has successfully used his “Annual Planning Review” for a number of years. You can link to it through his post, which you will find at . I feel that this is one of the best descriptions I have seen on how to set goals for personal improvement. And it applies to business and other goals as well.

Chris breaks the process down into three steps: 1) Reflect; 2) Visualize; and 3) Plan. Then he discusses the “what” and “why” of each step.

Of course, this requires some time: ideally some quiet time. That isn’t always easy to find. But look at it this way: every investment has a cost; that cannot be avoided. Setting goals is an investment in yourself. With the investment of a little time on a regular basis, you can put yourself on the path to achieving your goals and dreams. And when you reevaluate, you can make sure you are still on the right path.

Stephen Covey’s seventh habit is Sharpening the Saw. He explained that as we renew ourselves, we create growth and change in our lives, and increase our capacity to cope with the challenges that confront us. So skip a bowl game and do something will provide a greater benefit to you. Honestly, six months from now will it make a difference that you watched the Cheapo Depot Consolation Bowl and Half-Time Show on January 2nd?

As a leader, your greatest asset is you. If you won’t invest in yourself, don’t expect anyone else to. Make time for self-evaluation and self-improvement. It doesn’t matter when you reflect, visualize, and plan; what matters is that you do it consistently.

Do something, even if it’s wrong

My father-in-law, Werner Sommerfeld, has been a mechanical contractor for longer than I have known him. He immigrated to Salt Lake City in the early 1950’s. He is the epitome of hard work, high expectations, and integrity. His company slogan, “Old world craftsmanship; new world zeal” demonstrates that. When I was in dental school, I worked for him during my summers off. It was hard physical work, but it provided a good break from the long grind of graduate school. I remember that he would often tell his crew to “Do something, even if it’s wrong.” To him, being busy was far better than being idle. In idleness, we miss many opportunities. Momentum plays a part in that. Many times I have been in stop-and-go traffic on the freeway. I frequently see openings for a desired lane change; but because I lack momentum, I cannot safely move into that gap. Newton’s first law of motion states that a body at rest will remain at rest and a body in motion will remain in motion unless acted upon by an external force. Whether in the physics lab or in our behavior, this law applies. If we are in motion, we can move into a gap more easily and take advantage of a needed course correction or a new opportunity. In the early years of the Civil War, General George McClellan had several opportunities to crush the rebellion and bring a horrific war to an early end. Because of his inaction; because he didn’t pursue the fleeing Confederate Army, they lived to fight again, and the war dragged on. Lincoln grew frustrated with McClellan’s delays and fired McClellan, and began a lengthy search for a new commander who would take decisive action. Inertia can be used to our advantage if we are in motion. We can more readily adapt to changing situations and take advantage of them when we are moving. However, a leader in motion sometimes needs to be a leader at rest. Just not for too long. Longfellow, in his Psalm of Life said: “Let us, then, be up and doing, With a heart for any fate; Still achieving, still pursuing, Learn to labor and to wait.”[1] Sometimes a leader must wait, and “the waiting is the hardest part.”[2] Remember that you cannot always see what a leader sees or why he is waiting. And this should not be equated with idleness. But that is a topic for another post. Being a leader in motion will work to your benefit. It is easier to follow a leader who is moving in a definite direction. And it is usually harder to hit a moving target. Do something, even if the first try ends up being wrong! [1] Longfellow, Henry Wadsworth. The Complete Poetical Works of Longfellow. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1893. [2] Petty, Tom. The Waiting. © Warner/Chappell Music, Inc.

Good Leaders Listen

A number of years ago, I worked as a laborer for a mechanical contractor. We helped build the former Main Street Mall in Park City, Utah. As tenants began to occupy the building, it became apparent that there were some problems with the cooling system.

A meeting was called for all the contractors and many of the subcontractors who worked on the construction of the mall, presumably to discuss the problem. I happened to be there, too, and I learned a great lesson. These busy contractors sat in the room waiting for a constructive discussion. Randy Fields, at that time the “Mr. Fields” to Mrs. Fields of cookie fame, and a principal investor in the building, strode into the room.

Without any acknowledgement or introduction, he began: “We have a problem! I don’t care what it is or who is responsible: just fix it!” Then his tirade was over, and he left.

To say that we were all astonished would be an understatement. These contractors were busy men. They took time away from other projects to attend a 30-second meeting that accomplished exactly nothing. Except that it made a lasting impression on me. And the vast majority of them did not need to be there.

Fast forward to a recent committee meeting I attended. We had a brief agenda, and finished quickly (which does not often happen). Then our supervisor announced “Since we have some time left, I would like for us to have a frank discussion.” He proceeded to talk for 12 of the next 15 minutes, and honestly, he did not receive any meaningful feedback from any of us.

What did these two meetings have in common? The “facilitator” was not interested in listening; only in presenting and defending his own position.

Good leaders listen. A leader who doesn’t listen is more tyrant than leader. It is important for a connected leader to hear and consider what his people have to say. In our church councils, the leader has the ultimate decision-making authority, but the leaders I have served with consider the opinions of all before they present their decisions.

This is why many organizations follow parliamentary procedure: so that all participants may feel that their voice is heard.

An effective leader must be prepared to manage discussions in meetings. At the same time, he can receive useful information that will help him to fulfill his responsibilities.

When a leader cuts off discussion by defending the status quo, or by pushing his or her own agenda, the other attendees will cease to be followers. Particularly in a committee or council setting, it is important that everyone (within reason) feels that his opinion is valued. Many members will be reluctant to contribute if they feel that this is not the case.

Covey taught “Seek first to understand; then to be understood.” Effective leadership demands that we truly listen to our “followers” with the respect we would expect if the roles were reversed. That is often our biggest challenge as leaders. All too frequently we are thinking of what we will say next instead of listening attentively.

I have become a good listener because I have significant hearing loss. That bears some explanation. I have 50% hearing loss in my right ear. This creates difficulty for me in noisy rooms and many social situations. And if you are sitting on my right side, I won’t hear you well. While I do not read lips, if I don’t look at the person conversing with me, I cannot hear them well. Eye contact supports my ear contact. And I can see accompanying facial expressions, too.

Try this for a week. When you converse with someone, direct your full attention to the individual who is speaking. You will be amazed at what you hear.

Listen and lead!

Who Do You Lead?

Leadership is not easy to define, but as Thurgood Marshall said, “I know it when I see it.” We many not easily describe what makes a good leader, but we will readily follow one. Some think that people are born to be leaders. Research shows that this is absolutely untrue. Leadership is a learned skill, accessible to anyone who is willing to pay the price.

Pat Williams said that anyone who reads the right five books can become an expert in any field. Of course practice doesn’t hurt, either. And I don’t think that the 10,000 hour rule applies to leadership, or we would all be in trouble.

I have been a leader for much of my life. I have attended training sessions since I was 14 years old. I have served as a leader in Scouting, in my Church, and in my professional life. I have also studied the lives of many leaders. In many situations, I have also been a leader without a title. I’m not sure that this qualifies me as an expert, but I have learned many things are worth sharing.

I don’t think I will break any new ground with my posts: my intent is to share my own insights on elements of leadership and personal relations. I hope that these will teach or reinforce some basic principles that are important in leading others. My contention is that anyone can learn to lead. Leadership is for ordinary people, like me. And as we learn to lead better, we can also follow better.

These entries will not be great dissertations or scholarly efforts. Nor are they business articles. But I hope that they will be useful and even influential in some way. I make no promises as to the frequency of my posts. I lead a busy life, just like you. But I will try to post regularly

For the most part, my posts will be short, easily digestible essays. I will combine my own experiences with generally accepted principles and some commentary. You can also expect an infusion of my dry wit, along with some occasional vague musical references. I hope that you, my reader, will find something of value. There should be a nugget of practical wisdom or advice in each post, and sometimes a call to action.

I welcome your questions, comments and suggestions as this develops. Keep your comments clean and friendly. I reserve the right to delete any comments that I deem inappropriate.