Lessons learned from animals

We can learn a lot of lessons from animals.

Over the years I’ve used a lot of animal analogies, and it always amazes me how much easier it is to relate human behaviors in these examples.

Don’t yield to helplessness:  In cultures that depend on elephants for labor and transportation, it’s common to tie untrained elephants by their ankles to a bamboo tree, using heavy-duty rope.  After three or four days of trying to free themselves, elephants give up.

From that time on they can be restrained by tying one leg to a small peg in the ground – something they surely could escape from with minimal effort.  But with little resistance, the elephants don’t try to get loose.  Despite their superior size, they have learned helplessness.

Do you let your past experiences limit your choices?


Leave your mark:  Have you ever seen a duck move through water on a lake?  You don’t see its feet paddling under water, but let me tell you, the duck really moves.  It opens up an angle of at least 40 degrees and the water ripples as far as 40 or 50 feet, maybe even more.

That’s a lot.  The duck leaves a wake that’s 600 times its actual size.  That’s a lot of effect from a duck that’s only two feet long.

What kind of effect do your actions make?

Conquer your fear of failure:  The African impala can jump to a height of over 10 feet and cover a distance of greater than 30 feet.  Yet these magnificent creatures can be kept in an enclosure in any zoo with a 3 foot wall.  The animals will not jump if they cannot see where their feet will land.

As with so many humans, extreme caution gets in the way of success.

Don’t say no for the other person:  In the 1930s, a leading zoologist concluded after careful study that, according to the laws of aerodynamics, it should be impossible for a bumble bee to fly.  That is because its size, weight, and the shape of its body are all wrong in relation to its total wingspread.

Fortunately, no bumblebees have ever studied aerodynamics – so they just naively keep on doing what they’re incapable of doing.

Reach your full potential:  Flea trainers have observed a predictable and strange habit of fleas while training them.  Fleas are trained by putting them in a cardboard box with a top on it.  As you watch them jump and hit the lid, something very interesting becomes obvious.  The fleas continue to jump, but they are no longer jumping high enough to hit the top.

When you take off the lid, the fleas continue to jump, but they will not jump out of the box.  Once they have conditioned themselves to jump just so high, that’s all they can do.

Many people do the same thing.  They restrict themselves and never reach their potential.

Do your share:  A horseman spied the little sparrow lying on its back in the middle of the road.  Reining in his mount, he looked down and inquired of the little creature, “Why are you lying upside down like that?”

“I heard the sky is going to fall today,” replied the bird.

The horseman laughed, “And I suppose your spindly little legs can hold up the sky?”

“One does what one can,” said the little sparrow.

Are you doing all that you can to keep the sky from falling?

Growth involves risk:  An oceanographer was asked how a lobster is able to grow bigger when its shell is so hard.  The only way, he explained, is for the lobster to shed its shell at regular intervals.  When its body begins to feel cramped inside the shell, the lobster instinctively looks for a reasonably safe spot to rest while the hard shell comes off and the pink membrane just inside forms the basis of the new shell.

No matter where a lobster goes for this shedding process, it is vulnerable.  It can get tossed against a coral reef or eaten by a fish.  The lobster has to risk its life in order to grow.

Unlike the lobster, we have a choice when we resist taking risks because of the fear of failure.


Mackay’s Moral:  Animals rely on instincts, but we can control our actions.

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Warren Bennis led the way

Warren Bennis was synonymous with leadership.

Unfortunately, we lost Warren earlier this month but his leadership lessons and principles will live on for years.  He wrote more than 30 books on leadership, including his landmark work, “On Becoming a Leader.”  He advised U.S. Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, Ford and Reagan.

I got to know him during his 30 years at the University of Southern California where he was a Distinguished Professor of Business Administration and headed The Leadership Institute.  I had the privilege of serving on Warren’s board.

About two years ago, when I interviewed Warren for a group I was mentoring, he said, “I don’t know of a time when leadership is more of an issue.

“To survive in the 21st century, we’re going to need a new generation of leaders, not managers,” he said.  He clarified that leaders are strategic thinkers, while managers are tacticians.

Warren prophesied that managers had to change their way of leading.  “Move to maestro from macho in the way we’re thinking,” he challenged.  That means to shelve “command and control” thinking.  Be a real leader who both listens and guides people to get the job done.

I asked Warren to prioritize, as best he could, the skills of a corporate leader today.

The first thing he mentioned was contextual intelligence.  In other words, CEOs and their teams have to know “what is going on in the world that could inflect, deflect or influence their organization.”  He warned that CEOs and top teams today get too isolated and insulated and ultimately fail.

He said the first and primary task of a leader is to define reality and to give people perspective of where we are and provide the big picture of what’s going on.  The next steps are to align the troops and get the team in place.


In “On Becoming a Leader,” he wrote that all leaders seem to exhibit some, if not all, of the following ingredients:

  • Guiding vision.  “The leader has a clear idea of what he wants to do – professionally and personally and the strength to persist in the face of setbacks, even failures.”
  • Passion.  “The leader loves what he does and loves doing it.  The leader who communicates passion gives hope and inspiration to other people.”
  • Integrity.  “I think there are three essential parts of integrity:  Self-knowledge, candor and maturity … Until you truly know yourself, strength and weaknesses, know what you want to do and why you want to do it, you cannot succeed in any but the most superficial sense of the word … Candor is the key to self-knowledge.  Candor is based in honesty of thought and action, a steadfast devotion to principle, and a fundamental soundness and wholeness… Maturity is important to a leader because … every leader needs to have experienced and grown through following – learning to be dedicated, observant, capable of working with and learning from others, never servile, always truthful.”
  • Trust.  “Trust is not as much an ingredient of leadership as it is a product.  It is the one quality that cannot be acquired, but must be earned.”
  • Curiosity and daring.  “The leader wonders about everything, wants to learn as much as he can, is willing to take risks, experiment, try new things.  He does not worry about failure, but embraces errors, knowing he will learn from them.”

For a long time, Warren worked hard to achieve a key ambition: to become a university president.  When he finally achieved his goal as president of the University of Cincinnati, he came to an unsettling realization.  He liked having the prestige of being a university president, but he didn’t enjoy doing the work it required.

That’s when he started developing what ultimately became a four-question test for people seeking success in life.  Those four questions are:

  • Do you know the difference between what you want and what you’re good at?
  • Do you know both what drives you and what gives you satisfaction?
  • Do you know both your own priorities and values, and those of the organization you work for?

Can you identify the differences between the two alternatives in each of the above questions – and can you overcome those differences?

“If you can,” he wrote later, “then success will be yours.  In a nutshell, the key to success is identifying those unique modules of talent within you and then finding the right arena to use them.”

Mackay’s Moral:  Warren Bennis brought new meaning to “follow the leader.”

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What we look for in employees

I’ve hired about a thousand employees over the years.  It’s one of the joys of owning a business – giving opportunities to people who want to work and succeed. It’s also one of the challenges of owning a business – hoping that you have been a sharp judge of character and ability.  To me, ability is secondary to character.

Granted, applicants need to be qualified for the positions for which they are being interviewed.  But I’m willing to hire someone who doesn’t have perfect credentials, but is willing to learn because skills can be taught.  A finely-tuned training program can weed out those who are not up to the job.

Character is a little more complicated.  Multiple interviews expose different parts of someone’s personality.  For key hires, I always insist that candidates meet with an industrial psychologist to detect any red flags.  Even then, we’ve had a few slip through.

Once that new person has started on the job, it’s only fair to be very clear about what is important to your organization.  If you don’t define your expectations, you can’t fault someone for failing to live up to them.

harvey41I came across this spot-on assessment that I think can apply to any organization, business or non-profit, from the late legendary David Ogilvy, who was chief executive officer of the advertising company, Ogilvy & Mather.  He was giving a talk at the company’s annual year-end party. Speaking particularly to newcomers in the business, he said:

I want the newcomers to know what kind of behavior we admire and what kind of behavior we deplore.

1. First, we admire people who work hard.  We dislike passengers who don’t pull their weight in the boat.

2. We admire people with first-class brains, because you cannot run a great advertising agency without brainy people.

3. We admire people who avoid politics – office politics, I mean.

4. We despise toadies who suck up to their bosses.  They are generally the same people who bully their subordinates.

5. We admire the great professionals, the craftsmen who do their jobs with superlative excellence.  We notice that these people always respect the professional expertise of their colleagues in other departments.

6. We admire people who hire subordinates who are good enough to succeed them.  We pity people who are so insecure that they feel compelled to hire inferior specimens as their


7. We admire people who build up and develop their subordinates, because this is the only way we can promote from within the ranks.  We detest having to go outside to fill important
jobs, and I look forward to the day when that will never be necessary.

8. We admire people who practice delegation.  The more you delegate, the more responsibility will be loaded upon you.

9. We admire kindly people with gentle manners who treat other people as human beings – particularly the people who sell things to us.  We abhor quarrelsome people.  We abhor people who wage paper warfare.  We abhor buck passers, and people who don’t tell the truth.

10. We admire well-organized people who keep their offices shipshape, and deliver their work on time.

11. We admire people who are good citizens in their communities – people who work for their local hospitals, their church, the PTA, the Community Chest and so on.

I’m not sure whether these remarks were framed and hung in every office at Ogilvy and Mather.  But I think the sentiments bear repeating for employees in so many organizations.  Just imagine what company morale would be like if everyone followed these guidelines.

David Ogilvy seized an opportunity to share his thoughts on the corporate culture explicitly and publicly.  Some organizations may not have the luxury of such an event, but they nonetheless owe employees a clear explanation of expectations.

When you’ve worked hard to hire and train the best people you can find, it only makes sense to help them succeed in your organization.  Managers bear the responsibility for establishing policy.  They serve as role models, cheerleaders and enforcers.  They absolutely must set the example for all employees.

Believe me, your efforts will not go unnoticed by your customers – or your competitors.  When your shop becomes the company everyone wants to work for, it will be because you have made corporate culture a priority.


Mackay’s Moral:  Taking care of employees is taking care of business.

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Optimism saves the day

U.S. President Harry S. Truman once said, “A pessimist is one who makes difficulties of his opportunities and an optimist is who makes opportunities of his difficulties.”

Which do you think will reach their goals, live a happy life, and achieve their dreams?

Imagine interviewing two people who have identical skills, but one is always grumbling about how unfair life can be, while the other one talks about what wonderful possibilities exist.  Who would you want to hire?  Whom do you think would do a better job?

Naturally, you would gravitate toward the optimist.  If you choose the pessimist, you would be setting yourself up for plenty of aggravation and disappointment, not to mention the negative impact on your staff and customers.  Pessimism can bring everyone down, not just the person with the negative attitude.

Pessimism is nothing more than self-sabotage.  Expecting only the worst is not being realistic.  Realists hope for the best but prepare for the worst.  Pessimists can’t imagine the best, so only prepare for the worst.

And then if the worst never happens?  Pessimists often find the worst possible result simply to prove that their concerns were right.

The question becomes, would you rather be right than happy?  That’s not being realistic either.  That’s being self-defeating.  Pessimism can rob you of your energy, sap you of your strength, and drain you of your dreams.

harvey40Optimism is the remedy.  Optimism doesn’t mean pretending life is always wonderful.  Optimism means embracing reality.  You accept that there will be bad days, but also good days. When you’re grounded in reality, you know where you are and how far you need to go.  Once you know how far your goal may be from where you are, optimism can give you the motivation to make plans to get to where you want to go.

Pessimists see life as one problem after another.  Optimists see life as one opportunity after another.

How you look at life can drastically affect how much you enjoy your life.  Optimists expect the best out of life.  If you were not raised with this attitude, take comfort:  it can be learned.

Optimism is based on three basic tenets, according to Mary Kay Mueller in her book “Taking Care of Me:  The Habits of Happiness”:

  1. Bad things do happen in life, but they are temporary.
  2. Bad things in life are limited in scope and tend to be small or insignificant.
  3. People have control over their environments.

Pessimists reverse the tables:

  1. Good things in life are temporary.
  2. Good things in life are limited – small or insignificant.
  3. People have no control over their environments.

Does it make sense that pessimists tend to blame others or circumstances for their failures?
Optimists help create some of the good they come to expect, so they are probably right more than not – and they don’t waste time worrying about what they’re not right about.  Optimism relaxes people.  When we’re relaxed, there is better blood flow to the brain, which results in more energy and creativity in your life.

Consider how optimism turned this situation around.

Within a seven year time span, a woman’s mother died, her husband divorced her, and she found herself living in poverty just one step away from being homeless.  In her spare time, she wrote a book that 12 publishers rejected.  Finally one publisher accepted her book about a boy named Harry Potter.  And then she wrote a few more books, which became blockbuster movies, and even spawned a theme park.

J.K. Rowling was an optimist who’s now a billionaire.  How far in life would she have gotten by being a pessimist?

There is virtually nothing that you can’t do if you set your mind to it.  You cannot control events in your life, but you can control how you react.

Do you want to be a pessimist and have no hope for a better future?  Or would you rather be an optimist and believe you can achieve a better future?

There once was an old man who had many troubles.  No matter what hardship life handed him, he faced each obstacle with a smile and a cheery disposition.

A friend finally asked him how he managed to stay so happy despite his challenges

The old man quickly answered:  “Well, the Good Book often says, ‘And it came to pass,’ but never once does it say, ‘It came to stay.’” 


Mackay’s Moral:  Attitude is the mind’s paintbrush – it can color any situation.

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How to overcome the jitters and not choke

I recently came across a graduation speech by the valedictorian of a university law school.  He began his remarks by acknowledging that he had difficulty deciding what “wisdom” to impart to his fellow graduates.  He said he had consulted several quotation books and speaker’s guides but had come away uninspired.  He reviewed all the cases of law the class had studied and had found nothing that he felt was appropriate on such an important occasion.

At a loss for any inspiring thoughts, he sat down at his kitchen table eating biscuits.  And right in front of him on the opened roll of refrigerated biscuit dough, he spotted the belief that he knew he and his fellow graduates had in common and that he felt was worthy of the occasion.  The package, he said, had this message, “Keep cool.  But do not freeze.”  And with that he thanked all assembled and returned to his seat, amid rousing applause.

Freezing up – also referred to as choking – in important situations happens to all of us.  We regularly hear about golf superstars who blow a tap-in putt or $16 million-a-year basketball players missing a crucial shot.

Choking also happens many times in business.  How about the seasoned sales rep that botches a million-dollar sale?  Or the customer service rep that makes a problem worse rather than fixing it?

Many times choking is triggered by thinking too much.  Now neuroscience explains why.  We used to assume that if the incentive is increased, the will to perform will automatically increase.  Not so, according to a study that appeared in the journal “Neuron.”

A simple arcade game was used for the test.  At first, performance steadily improved as incentives increased.  The extra money proved motivating.  But this effect only lasted for a little while.  Once the rewards passed a certain threshold, scientists observed a surprising decrease in success.  The extra cash hurt performance, and the subjects began to choke.  Brain activity became inversely related to the magnitude of the reward.  Bigger incentives led to less excitement.

Harvey34The study stated that:  “The subjects were victims of loss aversion.  That’s the well-documented psychological phenomenon that losses make us feel bad more than gains make us feel good.  Instead of being excited by their future riches, the subjects were fretting over their possible failure … they care too much.  They really want to win, and so they get unravelled by the pressure of the moment.  The simple pleasures of the game have vanished … The fear of losing is what remains.”

That attitude is completely counterproductive.  One of my favorite aphorisms is “If you want to triple your success rate, you have to triple your failure rate.”  Fear of failure is paralyzing.  It prevents you from taking the risks necessary to succeed spectacularly.

If you “choke” when you’re in the spotlight or you start shaking, blushing or having shortness of breath when you’re on stage, check out the story by Karen Haywood Queen in “Better Homes and Gardens” about pianist Miriam Elfstron.  She suffered the jitters so bad that she had to wear mittens all day the days of her performances because her hands shook and became cold.  Eventually, her piano instructor taught her how to control her anxiety.  Her recommendations included:

  • Think positively.  Practice making positive statements about what you are doing and avoid using negative words or self-talk.  For instance, say “I am confident,” not “I don’t feel nervous.”
  • Practice performing through the inevitable slips.  It’s a performance.  If you mess up the world won’t come to an end.  Get comfortable recovering from slips and memory lapses.
  • Practice in front of smaller groups first.  Don’t perform for the first time for a crowd of 500.  It’s too much pressure.
  • Reduce muscle tension to reduce mental tension.  It’s all connected, so if your body is relaxed, there’s a good chance your mind will be relaxed as well.
  • Adopt a ritual.  Carry a lucky charm.  Wear your lucky shoes.  Touch your nose before you begin.  Dribble the ball three times before the game starts, like Michael Jordan.  Whatever works for you is OK.
  • Don’t be a perfectionist.  Don’t visualize a perfect performance, because then you will feel like you’ve failed if you make even a small mistake.  Instead, picture a performance where you do well by overcoming small obstacles along the way.


Mackay’s Moral:  Don’t let choking suck the life out of your career.  

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