An Empirical Life

This week, I wrote two blogs. CBS Money Watch focuses on the mindset of great leaders, and paints a picture of what companies would look like if Empirical Leaders ran things. The Huffington Post goes deep into what an Empirical Leader would look like, and poses a test to see if you are one.

As a summary of those two posts, an Empirical Leader is one who makes decisions based on evidence. With that grounding, he or she is able to go beyond “what is” and create tribal visions about what can be. They come across as both smart and visionary. They are often charismatic, as much for their mind and personal courage as for their ability to inspire others.

The purpose of this blog post is to talk about what an empirical life looks like at the personal level, the one factor that must be present to succeed as an Empirical Leader, and what’s behind this latest rant.

First the background. As people who know me will attest, every time I spend a day with Warren Bennis, I’m on a hopeful rant for at least a week. He’s such a rare combination of wisdom and intelligence that time with him seems to unlock passion and zeal. This week, I was privileged to co-teach a session for USC alumni on leadership. I picked him up, drove the couple of hours to the event, mingled there, and then drove him to his home. During that time, we talked about why some people succeed and the vast majority fail. One of the reasons, we both concluded, was a focus on evidence, and the personal characteristic of consciousness.

Those two things appear to be the key to a great life: an empirical bias (making decisions based on evidence) and consciousness to actually follow through on what you say.

Now, what it looks like. I’m in a tribe—including my friends and acquaintances—that lives empirically.

The best way to describe what an empirical life looks like is to describe its opposite. A few months ago I was in Illinois for a leadership workshop with some managers from a public accounting firm. A victim of bad planning, I forgot dress shirts. When I asked the front desk of the conference center at about 9pm what I could do, he said my only option was Wal-Mart. Everything else was closed. It was pouring rain. A hotel employee drove me to the Wal-Mart and waited outside. Inside, now about 9:30pm, was a tribe that seemed to avoid every bit of advice ever given.

They were almost all enormous—and I’m talking fat, or whatever word is beyond morbidly obese. People roamed the shopping aisles like zombies, eyes glazed over in a carbohydrate trance. Many had opened bags of chips they had picked up but not yet paid for, eating one after another. They loaded their baskets with sugared cereal, donuts, and more chips. There were children running around, most on sugar highs. When their little ones would crash into stacks of merchandise, their parents would scream at them, calling them stupid and often threatening them with slaps. The parents walked slowly, as though trying to avoid burning too many calories. The store was filled with both men and women, people of all races, young adults and people who could have been great grandparents. But the sameness was shocking.

This, I thought, is a big swath of our country. How the hell did this happen? This is the country that won World War II, survived the depression, won the Cold War, landed the first humans on the moon, and invented the iPhone.

I wasn’t surprised to learn that among certain sub-categories of Americans, life expectancy is falling for the first time in generations.  It’s unclear why this is happening. Early theories suggest a lack of access to healthcare, obesity, widespread use and overdoses of prescription pills and higher than average rates of smoking. The factor that I’d say is responsible is: the predominance of Stage One and Two tribes. (For people new to Tribal Leadership, Stage One acts out of a “life sucks” view, while Stage Two displays a “my life sucks” pattern of behavior.)

Imagine what would have happened at that Wal-Mart if a motivational speaker would have appeared, and encouraged everyone to take the stairs, to give up sugar, to walk 10,000 steps a day, to mediate and avoid drinking too much. Quit smoking, replace the Nachos with raw carrots, and treat your back pain with yoga, not OxyContin. At the risk of inflaming people, Governor Romney was right about America having a large victim culture, although I’ve never heard such groups say they want to be taken care of by the government, and he’s off on his percentages, too. The number in our studies is about 25% of employed tribes are in Stage Two (“my life sucks”). They are incapable of living empirical lives, because it’s just too much hassle, it won’t work, and would I please stop talking so they can hear Honey Boo Boo. And they aren’t all Democrats.

Stage Three (“I’m great”) tribes are required to live an empirical life, and Stage Four (“we’re great”) is required to for Empirical Leadership. So if the following sounds out of touch for most people, the key is to upgrade tribes to where these sorts of behaviors will be second nature. They’re never easy, but in Stage Three and beyond, they aren’t optional.

People in my tribes are fit, have friendly competitions with each other using our FitBits about who walked more, ran more, took more stairs, or spent more minutes in intense exercise. We stand on scales that measure (within a large degree of error) our body fat and lean muscle mass. Our body mass averages aren’t great because we lift weights, while our body fat percentages are far below national averages. We don’t all drink alcohol, but most do—I drink a glass of red wine every day. We eat yogurt, drink coffee, eat dark chocolate, and spend part of every day learning a new skill. We practice good organization, with things in their places so that our minds can focus. We aren’t normally in debt, we are planning for our retirements. We don’t multitask. We keep journals to vent our frustrations, so we don’t lash out at each other. We network and are constantly expanding our tribes. Some of us have pets. In fact, my cat (The Dude) is sitting on lap while I’m typing this.

We immunize our children—the same children we praise for their hard work, not for their natural brilliance. We read books to them, eat meals with them, and encourage them to ask questions. We practice time-outs, not threats of slapping. We ask them to say please and thank you.

We see our doctors and dentists regularly. If one of us has a problem, whether it’s a mole that’s changed color or we just feel blue, we seek treatment immediately. We don’t love everything that we do, but suck it up and do those things anyway. We concentrate our time on what we’re good at doing, and seek to be the best in those areas. We admit our weaknesses and problems (mine include dyslexia and ADHD). We don’t consider it weakness to seek mental health treatment, but also try to look on the bright side as much as possible.

We don’t judge each other for mistakes, but we would give our tribe members grief for doing something with enormous negative consequences—like smoking, or drinking while driving. We also don’t kick someone off the tribal island for making errors in judgment, or temporarily doing stupid things. Our measure for behavior is “does this express your values?”

It’s not all happiness and joy. We take risks, and run experiments, especially in business, and some of them don’t pay off. We’ve suffered through low-income periods, been in debt, and been embarrassed about our mistakes. We often overcommit and get down about the work we have. Sometimes work is tedious, and all of us do things that we’d rather hand off. We’ve had business ventures fail. We go through periods where we feel like withdrawing, and sometimes we “go fallow.” At least half of what we do doesn’t work out—more than two thirds of what I write is never seen by anyone besides some trusted friends who tell me its crap. Most of us work too much, but we’d rather overcommit than sit around and be bored.

We measure ourselves by progress on goals, not on vanity measures (thank you, Eric Ries). We create our own plans and do them. We talk about values, and do our best to make decisions based on those principles. When we have a difficult decision to make, we go back to our core values for guidance.

We got out of our way to meet interesting people, mostly asking them questions.  We go to museums as often (or more) than McDonalds.

So what’s the point of all this? Everything I write here has some basis in evidence, although not every expert would agree with everything written. Great leadership, as I wrote in the Huffington Post blog, starts with empiricism—and that includes making decisions on the basis of the evidence and actually following through on it. Stage Three or above is required to have a great life, but it’s ultimately empty. Stage Four makes group decisions on the basis of empiricism but goes beyond the facts to invent new futures and do what most people can only imagine.

There was a point in the United States when empiricism was more valued than it is today. We didn’t know as much back then, which is one reason people smoked, ate poorly, and often didn’t exercise. But those generations won World War II, ended the great depression, broke the sound barrier and then the space barrier. They did things because the evidence implied they were doable, and people allowed themselves to dream.

With even a few Empirical Leaders in key spots, creating new visions, we can out know, out perform, and out dream every other generation in history.

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