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9 Virtues Blog

Making Tough Career Choices: 5 Questions to Ask Yourself

by N. Karl Haden, Ph.D.


Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both…
Robert Frost

Last year, during one of our large leadership programs, a participant asked me about a major career choice she faced. In this case, the choice involved leaving her organization and taking a different career path. Many of life’s dilemmas, including tough career choices, become dilemmas precisely because evidence and reason fail to provide clear direction. In situations where there is no clear direction, it is important to see the matter from various perspectives.

But how does one see in a new and different light? While not a protocol for tough career choices, or more broadly, life’s dilemmas, I have found the following questions and corresponding actions, taken as a whole, to be helpful.

What do my mentors and friends think? Most people have a handful of people who know them well, have varied life experiences, and who possess recognizable wisdom about life. Whether these individuals are mentors, a spouse or significant other, other close friends, or all of the above, they are a ready resource to help one reframe career choices. Whenever I’m stuck, I talk with mentors and friends. The advice usually helps—sometimes I take it, other times not, but talking about the dilemma helps me think and feel through it.

What are my motivations? Or, phrased somewhat differently, what’s important to me? Tough career choices present opportunities to examine and re-examine what brings satisfaction and happiness; they touch virtually every other aspect of our lives. Consequently, they should be examined in the light of a person’s total life commitments.

Dilemmas often come in the form of having two or more good choices. While not always the case, I have found that looking at career choices in the broader context of what’s important in life elucidates the situation. Why would I want to do this? How does this direction fit with my family, my social life, my mental, spiritual, and physical well-being?

How does the matter look on paper? I’m not referring to the numbers. Rather, this question reflects a simple technique that I personally find helpful. I do my best thinking with a pencil and paper. Whether it’s a pro/con list or just trying to map out a direction and options, putting my thoughts on paper seems to help.

How does the matter look to the uncluttered mind? This question is about meditation. While meditation can mean many things, in this case I’m referring to clearing the mind of the usual clutter. If one pauses for 10 seconds, he or she will hear and observe a myriad of ideas, conversations, hopes, and fears firing across the brain. Trying to hush the noise to give one’s mind a respite is difficult but vital to seeing things differently and more clearly. I sometimes sit quietly; sometimes exercise.  Sometimes there is music; other times, not. Sometimes the meditation takes the form of emptying the mind and sometimes it’s meditation on personal mission or values. However one seeks to unclutter the mind, carving out protected time to clean house is essential.

Can I live with the choice? In some ways, choice is more fundamental than reason. As noted above, choices become dilemmas when the evidence and reason fail to identify clearly the path we ought to take. I’ve made a few really bad choices, and paid the price, but in most cases it works out. In the end, I act. It may be a reasonable decision, but the big choices are almost always a step of faith believing that it’s going to work out.

Ultimately, living with one’s choices requires self-confidence.  Even if a person unwittingly makes a bad choice, they must enter the situation convinced that they can either make it work or work their way out of it.  Having self-confidence to figure out things along the way is a mark of personal leadership.

How to Build a Twitter Following--and Why You Should

by Rob Jenkins


Corey Robin, in his recent thought-provoking essay, "How Intellectuals Create a Public," argues that "the public intellectual is not simply interested in a wide audience of readers, in shopping her ideas on the op-ed page to sell more books." Instead, "she sees her writing as a transformative mode of action, a thought-deed in the world."

Robin is probably right about that. I don’t claim to be a public intellectual. I am, however, interested in attracting a wider audience of readers, and perhaps even selling more books. That’s because I believe I have things to say that are worth saying, I’d like to communicate with more people, and I have no moral objection to being paid for my time and effort.

If you share those same goals, then you need to be using social media, particularly Twitter, probably more than you are now. I’ve got some advice — based on my own recent efforts to use Twitter to broaden my audience — for those who are either new to Twitter or who have only dipped a toe into that particular pool. But before I proceed, a few disclaimers are in order.

First, although I am not a Twitter expert, my oldest son is social-media director for a large news organization in the West. He has given me a number of very helpful tips. I’ve also learned a great deal by playing around on the platform, trying different things to see what works and what doesn’t. But there are almost certainly people reading this who know more about using Twitter than I do, and if that's the case I would invite you to share your thoughts--via Twitter, of course. 

Second, this column is not for young hipsters sipping lattes in coffee shops while tapping on their Macbook Pros. Nor is it for those annoying middle-aged early adopters, regaling the rest of us with their technological savvy and gushing over the latest gadget with missionary zeal.

Rather, it’s for people like me: midcareer professionals who are not digital natives and who are naturally a bit intimidated by — and perhaps even suspicious of — technology. (I finally caved and bought a smartphone back in January.) If you’re in that category, and you’ve been wondering lately if maybe you should try using social-media sites like Twitter to increase your impact on your field, not to mention the wider world, the answer is that you should, and you can. Here’s how.

Have something to say. Before you start tweeting, you need a good reason to tweet — something to tweet about. Obviously you can, and should, share links to articles that interest you, pithy quotes you run across, and brief statements of your opinion on various topics. (Remember: You only get 140 characters, and that includes spaces.) But ultimately, if you hope to expand your influence, you should be tweeting periodically about your own work.

That means you also need a blog, assuming you don’t already have one. If you don’t blog, but you do have a personal or professional website, it’s a simple enough matter to add a blog page. Otherwise, you can create a blog easily and inexpensively using WordPress or a similar product. You might also look into contributing to other blogs, such as those run by well-known organizations or people with whom you have some connection. You can use your blog posts not only to share ideas but also to promote your books, articles, and lectures.

Once you’ve written a blog post, you can then tweet the link — in hopes that somebody, somewhere might actually read it. Note that you shouldn’t tweet exclusively about your blog or your own work in general. I recommend at least four or five tweets a day, with no more than one or two of them being self-promotional.

A tale of two Twitters. I actually have two professional Twitter accounts. (I used to have a personal account, too, but I quit using it because it was, quite frankly, too politically fraught.) I started one, @HigherEdSpeak, about three years ago and have allowed it to grow organically. That is, I haven’t made any sort of concerted effort to attract followers. People follow me after reading one of my columns in The Chronicle, or else they come across my "handle" in some other way. That account now has roughly 1300 followers.

My second Twitter account (@AAL_ELI), which I just created about eight months ago, already has over 3,100 followers. I use that one — shameless plug alert — to promote my latest book, The 9 Virtues of Exceptional Leaders, co-written with Karl Haden, president and CEO of the Academy for Academic Leadership, where I am a fellow. We have a blog, on which we post something new each week, and we tweet daily about both the blog and the book, intermingled with quotes, links, and pearls of wisdom. By following the steps I’m about to outline, we’ve been moderately successful in attracting followers, driving people to our blog, and selling a few books.

Give some thought to your profile. As I’ve worked to build a following, I’ve looked at a lot of Twitter profiles. Some attracted me, some repulsed me, and many were merely annoying.

The key to a good professional Twitter profile is to let people know who you are and what you do in just a few words (you get 160 characters for a profile) without sounding too braggy, enigmatic, or just plain weird. You needn’t write in complete sentences. Instead, strive for conciseness. Verbs are optional. Don’t litter your profile with hashtags (more about those later) or mention your cats, hobbies, or politics.

Also, don’t say things about yourself that sound ridiculous or are completely subjective. Somewhere there must be a Twitter guru advising people to describe themselves as "passionate" about whatever because that is perhaps the single most common word I’ve seen used. So you’re passionate about medieval literature or string theory? Really? I’m passionate about my family. Maybe honey chipotle wings. My job I merely like a lot.

By the same token, be careful about describing yourself as an "expert," an "authority," or an "artist." Those are labels that others should apply to you, not that you should claim for yourself. Be content, for now, with being a "scholar," a "researcher," or a "painter."

Finally, as an employee of an organization, you might want to save a few characters at the end for a brief disclaimer — of the "tweets are my own" variety.

You want followers, but not just any followers. You want people who follow you because they might have some interest in what you do and the things you write about. Don’t be tempted by offers (and you will receive plenty) to buy followers. You’re better off with 10 followers who care about your work than 10,000 who don’t.

To create your readership, start by following other people in the hope that they will follow you back. Once you do, Twitter will make recommendations based on the preferences it detects — some sort of algorithm at work, no doubt. But I’ve found that its suggestions are only moderately useful. If you follow a sociologist who happens to love dogs, Twitter is just as likely to recommend a bunch of dog lovers as it is to recommend other sociologists.

A more productive approach is to search for people or organizations on Twitter with whom you have something in common — prominent names in your field, perhaps, or professional associations. See who’s following them, and then follow those people. Typically, about 20 percent of them will follow you back.

A couple of caveats: First, don’t follow too many people at once, or else Twitter will identify you as some sort of stalker and shut down your account. (Yes, that happened to me once.) I recommend following no more than 50 people at a time. If you do that every day, you can easily add 75 to 100 targeted followers a week.

Second, take care not to let your following-to-followers ratio get too high, or, again, you might get shut down. The number of people you follow should never exceed 150 percent of those following you. Periodically go onto your following page and "unfollow" people who haven’t followed you back, unless you have some good reason for following them. (Please note that "people" also refers to organizations and sites, and also that I used some form of the word "follow" four times in that one sentence.)

Interaction is key. As you begin to attract followers, two things become extremely important. The first, as I’ve mentioned, is giving them a reason to stay — that is, offering content that will interest them. The second is the reason they call it social media: You need to interact (productively) with people — to make connections and even form relationships. Those contacts can become extremely valuable. I’ve gotten speaking engagements based on Twitter exchanges.

One way to interact is to retweet. Everyone likes to be retweeted, and you will know you are beginning to have an impact when people start to retweet you. You can also respond to other people’s tweets, creating a conversation that others can follow and even join. I highly recommend civility and restraint. Twitter also has a function that allows you to "quote," or embed someone else’s tweet in your own, so you benefit from the impact of the original tweet while at the same time creating a relationship with the tweeter.

Another way to interact is via hashtags. Using a hashtag — by putting that pound sign on your keyboard before a common word or phrase — means that anyone searching for that word or phrase on Twitter can come across your tweet. For example, in tweeting about my book, I often use the hashtag #leadership. People who are searching Twitter for information on leadership might well find my tweet and thereby my page.

A final caveat. The point of using Twitter is to attract followers, not drive them away. I assume you want people to read your blog and buy your books whether or not they agree with you on every issue. You want to build bridges, not walls. Being provocative can enhance your appeal, but there’s a fine line between that and offending large numbers of people. I strongly recommend you come down on the bridge-building side of that line.

A Skeptic's Observations on Leadership

by N. Karl Haden, Ph.D.


Having just finished another article on leadership, I’m reminded of why I find most modern treatments of the subject uninspiring, uninformed, repetitive, and unoriginal.  No matter what color the wrapping, inside the best books and articles on leadership is a similar nougat. While the emergence of social sciences in the early 20th century led to prolific studies of leadership, some of the most enlightened and enlightening thinking about leadership occurred 2000 years ago, give or take a few centuries. Literally thousands of books are published each year about leadership.  The repackaged ideas that pass for novel thinking on the subject have existed for a long time, articulated best when they were articulated first. 

Steven Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People has sold over 15 million copies since its publication in 1989. The popularity of The 7 Habits attests to its ability to engage and interest the reader and to its applicability. However, the importance of good habits in human well-being was examined profoundly much earlier than the late 20th century, most especially by Aristotle in the 4th century BC. The discerning student of leadership will find in Book One of Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations notions that have become modern theoretical constructs known as transformational leadership, transactional leadership, adaptive leadership, servant leadership, exemplary leadership, heroic leadership, level-5 leadership, primal leadership, and the like.  When I buy or am given any new text on leadership, I admit that I read it through jaded eyes.  I’m a skeptic that modern leadership theory will have anything new to offer.  Sometimes I’m surprised and I do see something in a new light. I’m hopeful for more surprises.

To admit skepticism about modern leadership theory might seem contradictory or at least paradoxical, coming from someone who has recently co-authored my own book on the subject, The 9 Virtues of Exceptional Leaders. I don’t mean to suggest that the study and practice of leadership is unimportant. On the contrary, leadership is more important now than in any time in human history because so much is at stake with our planet, in our societies, communities, and organizations and for each of us individually in this time of challenge, change, and opportunity.  What I hope to elucidate is my contention that most contemporary treatments of the topic are shadows of ancient wisdom regarding the timeless heart of leadership: ethos or character, which Rob Jenkins and I describe in our new book as virtue.   

It’s fair to say that the ancients weren’t preoccupied with theories of leadership. However, they were much taken with the subject of human excellence and well-being. The term for excellence is arête, which is often translated as “virtue” and relates to functional excellence. For example, the functional excellence, or virtue, of the eye is to see well.  The virtue of the physician is practice to ensure a healthy patient. 

What then is the functional excellence of a human being?  It is to live well, and not simply from the standpoint of material possessions. Living well requires that we engage in those things that are the highest expressions of our humanity:  learning and growing intellectually and emotionally, belonging and contributing to the experience of family and friendships, and engaging as a citizen of the human community, from our neighborhoods, to the places in which we work, to the global community. Virtue is very much a practical concept, guiding how one lives his or her life. Yet it goes beyond the ethical consideration of how one ought to live to a deeper self-examination: What ought one to be? The ancients referred to this concept as ethos.

What is the virtue of leadership?  To lead well.  But what does leading well mean?  There is no doubt that leadership requires technical expertise. For example, most of what happens in business schools to educate managers and leaders is about developing technical expertise.  Effective leadership requires something else—it requires ethosEthos is the very heart of leadership.  It raises the question about the type of person one wishes to become as a leader and the type of person that we want as our leaders. 

For example, honesty or trustworthiness seems to be a sine qua non of leadership.  Add to that other personal virtues such as humility, courage, perseverance, and justice—virtues that are well described by the ancients and which Rob and I discuss at great length in our book. The point is not merely that the leader knows a lot about humility, courage, and the like, but that he or she embodies these habits of excellence—and they are indeed habits—through practicing of them regularly.

This ancient way of thinking about leadership accentuates the importance of role modeling, mentoring, leading by example, and growing in self-knowledge through study and reflection. It minimizes the perception of leadership as a set of techniques, the reification of formulaic behaviors. Hence, would-be leaders at all levels must ask two questions, in this order: “What kind of person do I aim to become?” and “What kind of leader do I want to be?” Considerations of skills and the techniques of managing follow.

Virtue is thus a necessary condition for leadership, as Rob and I have attempted to make clear in The 9 Virtues. To the extent that we understand and adhere to this concept, I believe we are tapping into ancient wisdom that can help us become better leaders in these modern times.

Does that mean we should require emerging leaders to read Aristotle, Marcus Aurelius, and others from the pantheon of intellectual antiquity?  Why not? But at the very least, they should be able to get a good taste of these ideas by reading The 9 Virtues

The 5 Biggest Employee Morale Killers

by Rob Jenkins


For nearly two-thirds of my 30-plus-year career, I have worked as a “middle manager” of one sort or another. For the remaining third—more than 10 years—I have been middle-managed.

Of course, even as a manager, I had plenty of people above me telling me what to do. I also had people below me who, given the chance, would gladly tell me what to do.

The point is that I know what it’s like to be on both sides of that transaction. Specifically, I understand first-hand what managers can do to make employees’ lives easier—and what they all-too-often do that makes employees’ lives more difficult (dare I say “miserable”?). Accordingly, I’d like to identify, for the benefit of new managers especially, what I consider the five biggest morale killers for employees, particularly in organizations that rely heavily on intellectual capital.

Micro-management. No one likes to have someone looking over their shoulder and telling them what to do all the time, especially intelligent, highly trained professionals. Many of today’s knowledge workers operate so autonomously, due to the nature of their work, that they can easily come to see themselves as independent contractors rather than employees.

From a management perspective, that’s not always a good thing. And yet some employees do require a certain amount of intellectual independence if they’re to do their best work. Clearly, managers are often required to maintain a very delicate balance between supervision and autonomy. Generally speaking, it’s better to err on the side of the latter.

Trust issues. Intelligent employees tend to interpret micro-management as lack of trust. Their leaders, they assume, simply don’t have enough faith in their ability or commitment to allow them to do their work as they see fit. Few things are more insulting to good employees, most of whom are deeply committed to their work and who in many cases know far more about it than their managers.

Of course, trust is a two-way street. To be happy and productive, employees need to feel that their managers trust them, but they also need to believe they can trust their managers—to be open and honest, to follow through on promises, and to have the best interests at heart.

In my experience, an organization suffering from low morale is almost always one where employees do not have that kind of confidence in their leaders—where trust has been broken.

Hogging the spotlight. When an organization succeeds, that is rarely attributable to any single individual. And yet it’s natural for leaders to want to take much of the credit, for several reasons: they’re the ones in charge, after all, so the success must be due to their great leadership; they need such documented successes to solidify their positions, not to mention pave the way for future promotions; and they often take a disproportionate share of the blame when things go wrong, so why shouldn’t they take most of the credit when things go right?

Such thinking may be natural, but it is anathema to a smooth-running organization. Leaders must embrace a number of behaviors that don’t necessarily come naturally, and one of those is deflecting praise. Effective leaders know that when their organization succeeds, they have succeeded, and they are content to spread the credit around while taking little or none for themselves. (Think about Tom Brady at the post-game press conference following a big Patriots win.)

Ineffective leaders sabotage morale and create a toxic environment by taking most of the credit for themselves, whether they deserve any of it or not.

The blame game. In addition to deflecting praise when things go right, leaders must also learn to accept the lion’s share of the blame when things go wrong.

That can be very difficult, especially if the failure really wasn’t their fault. Effective leaders understand, however, that just as they succeed when the organization succeeds, they also fail when the organization fails—whether or not the actual failure was their own. So they square their shoulders, accept the blame and accompanying criticism, and resolve to do better in the future.

(Note that “doing better” may well involve some very intense conversations with the people who were actually to blame. But those conversations should be kept, as much as possible, behind closed doors.)

Weak and ineffectual leaders, on the other hand, are always looking for someone else to blame. Nothing is ever their fault, even when it clearly is. I can’t think of a better recipe for destroying morale in any organization.

Blatant careerism. Finally, we come to one of my own personal pet peeves: leaders whose sole ambition in life is to climb as high as possible on the executive ladder and who are willing to do literally anything to achieve that ambition.

Okay, maybe not “anything.” I’ve never known a manager who committed murder in order to get a promotion, although I’ve known a few who probably thought about it. But “anything,” in this case, can definitely include throwing the people they lead “under the bus,” as the rather graphic colloquialism puts it—pointing the finger at others when things go wrong in order to inoculate themselves against blame and ratting people out for minor infractions in order to ingratiate themselves with the powers-that-be.

“Anything” can also include using the people under them as stepping stones for their own ambitions—taking credit for their achievements and/or giving them make-work assignments that do little more than enhance the leader’s own resume.

I once worked for someone exactly like that. I used to duck into the men’s room anytime I heard the distinctive clip-clop of her high heels coming down the hallway, because I knew any “casual” meeting would result in a new project for me, the only purpose of which was to make her look better in the eyes of her superiors.

That’s no way to build morale. In fact, that’s exactly how you kill it, along with micro-managing, breaking trust, hogging credit, and deflecting blame. Leaders who behave that way, in my experience, might enjoy some apparent success in the short term but will rarely succeed over the long term, partly because they don’t usually last that long.

Of course, that’s not the only reason managers should try to build morale rather than destroy it. Effective leaders try to create a workplace where people are comfortable and fulfilled, where they feel valued and believe what they’re doing has meaning. People in that situation are likely to be more productive, making the organization a success and creating plenty of credit to go around—even for a leader determined to deflect as much of it as possible.