Fixing Bad Breath Leadership

Bad leadership is like bad breath – everyone except you knows you’ve got it.

I give a lot of leadership seminars. During the top takeaways discussions, someone invariably says, “This seminar was a reminder of things I learned about good leadership …” 

The problem is that the person needs to practice better leadership. They know what good leaders should do but aren’t implementing the behaviors. 

It’s the bad breath problem. You know you should have non-repulsive breath, but you don’t. That’s called unconscious incompetence.

You might have the finest ideas, but no one’s listening because they can’t get past your breath (metaphorically).

Leadership off-sites and workshops help the open-minded move toward conscious incompetence. You recognize that your behaviors impede rather than inspire people to contribute their best to your organization’s success.

It’s like putting your hand in front of your mouth for the first time.

Oh my … it’s no wonder these behaviors aren’t working.

Leadership training, if done well, helps you build conscious competence. You know better behaviors, and you consciously work to put them into practice.

The shortfall with conscious competence is that you spend so much energy concentrating on the behaviors that you can lose sight of your objectives.

It’s like the batter who concentrates so hard on every element of their swing – stand in this way, keep your hands here, put your elbow this high, etc. – that you miss the pitch or mess up your swing. You have too many details running through your head while you try to do your job.

You’ve spent some much time worrying about your breath that you stumble over the message.

You must move to unconscious competence, where the behaviors become second nature. In the military, we call it muscle memory. You’ve developed good habits that bring out the best in people, and those behaviors are now so ingrained that you don’t have to think about them.

The unconscious competence stage comes about through practice, feedback, and accountability. You practice the behaviors so they work for you and your employees and get the outcomes you desire. The fastest way to achieve success is with the right coaching.

Here’s a process you can follow to build successful leadership habits.

  1. Knowledge transfer through leadership books, seminars, talks, and candid assessments, helps you become conscious of incompetencies. 
  2. Immersion in successful habits at off-sites and programs builds conscious competence.
  3. Implementation and accountability with the right coaching help you develop unconscious competence.

You unconsciously practice becoming an ever-better leader so your employees can focus on your goals.

Are you ready to take your organization to new heights? I can help you develop unconscious leadership competence throughout your organization. Schedule a call or send me an email to get started.

CEOs are struggling with their return-to-office policies. Employees “who are least engaged,” WeWork CEO Sandeep Mathrani told The Wall Street Journal, “are very comfortable working from home.”

Cathy Merrill, the chief executive of Washingtonian Media, wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post warning employees about the risks of not returning to the office. “The hardest people to let go are the ones you know.” Her employees staged a work stoppage.

A friend who works in the high-tech industry stated that their company will use a 75-25 rule: employees need to spend 75 percent of their time in the office and work from anywhere for the remainder.

Leaders can do better than use proximity to make judgments about value, issue veiled threats, and devise arbitrary rules that will waste time and energy in monitoring.

Here’s a more productive way.

Plenty of jobs are done mostly in isolation, such as research-oriented work. Other jobs, like manufacturing, need to be performed in person.

Companies also have roles in which employees perform recurring tasks: assembly-line work, IT monitoring, coordinating activities, etc. You also have roles to handle non-recurring requirements, including innovation, crisis management, and product development.

When you put these variables together in a double-axis chart, you get a better way to organize your return-to-office requirements.

Recurring work employees working in isolation are prime candidates for very liberal work-from-home arrangements. Contract attorneys, paralegals, insurance adjusters, and accountants are potential examples.

Non-recurring work that employees can perform in isolation should have permissive arrangements, too, but less so than the former because the free exchange of ideas improves quality and reduces the risk of science projects taking on their own lives. Many individual contributor roles fit this situation.

By contrast, non-recurring roles requiring substantial collaboration should be performed more at the office than elsewhere. A program manager, for example, should be primarily on-site but can work remotely as needed.

Recurring roles requiring collaboration, like being on a production line, often require the highest in-office frequency.

You can explain the why behind a commonsense method like this, and you’ll boost productivity, retain your top talent, and make intelligent choices about office space.

Is it time to build a new strategy? My 5-D Strategy Process® is simple, thorough, helps you gain buy-in, and costs a fraction of what you pay fancy firms. 

Say no to massive, expensive documents that nobody reads and are impossible to implement. Schedule a call with Chris Kolenda to get started. 

Is your company trapped in the doom loop of high turnover, poor execution, and poor customer experience? 

This loop leads to your customers seeking alternatives, which means declining sales, lower profits, and a higher risk of bankruptcy.

Organizations typically take their employees for granted, failing to invest in their well-being and future growth because they don’t see the payoff. A recent Harvard Business Review article shows the impact of this short-sighted approach. 

People who feel unfulfilled and taken for granted tend to be on the lookout for a better fit. That means they are paying less attention to your company’s well-being because they are preoccupied with their own. It’s no wonder 69 percent of Americans report being unengaged at work. 

People feeling undervalued jump ship. Losing people you’ve trained reduces productivity and heightens the likelihood of poor execution. 

Poor execution damages your customers’ experiences, leading to more problems you need to fix. Unsatisfied customers will vote with their feet for a competitor.

Now you’re paying penalties on two levels. 

First, losing existing customers undermines your business and makes you invest more heavily in attracting new customers (keeping existing customers tends to be cheaper than finding new ones).

Second, you get consumed in damage control. Instead of focusing on strategy, innovation, and growth (why you get paid X), you are cleaning up problems that a junior employee (who you pay Y) should have prevented in the first place.

X minus Y is your opportunity cost. If your salary is $250/hour and your employee’s is $50, your damage control costs you $200/hour. 

[NOTE: Micromanaging has the same math.]

An employee value proposition (EVP) helps you reverse the spiral because your employees see how you are investing in them as people. A good EVP includes tangible and intangible benefits, both short and long-term.

Many organizations focus on short-term tangible benefits, such as pay, and neglect the other three areas that emphasize purpose, belonging, and growth opportunities. Beyond a certain threshold, these factors are more prominent in stay-or-go decisions than pay.

Creating an EVP for your employees is an important forcing function that gets you to provide compelling, intangible benefits that will attract and retain the right people.

If this blog resonates with you and you are wondering about the next steps, Schedule a Call with Chris Kolenda. 

360 external awareness occurs when you know what people think and feel about you and their workplace. The key stakeholders include your bosses, peers, and the employees you lead. The latter is the trickiest, and Northwestern University football coach Pat Fitzgerald was fired for neglecting this responsibility.

I remember watching Pat Fitzgerald play football at Northwestern in the mid-1990s and cheered him on as he became the head coach who turned around a lacklustre program.

The allegations of serial hazing on the team are disheartening. The stories of cruelty and mistreatment keep materializing.

Fitzgerald should be fired as the head coach, whether he knew about the hazing and condoned it or did not know such activities were happening on his watch. 

Leaders must discover what’s happening in their organizations, particularly regarding their most vulnerable employees. 

Knowing what your bosses and peers think about you and your organization is normally straightforward. 

Figuring out what your employees think and feel about your workplace is trickier. 

A camouflage net obscures your view from above. You only see what you want to see, the bits that emerge into plain sight, and what people are willing to reveal to you. The net conceals everything else.

The best leaders develop ways to get underneath the net to see things as they are, identify problems, spot talent, and gain fresh ideas.

Here are some ways I help leaders do that.

  1. Feedback loops. Use a combination of short questionnaires, focus groups, and individual interviews to get ground truth. Identify the issues you want to address, tell your employees, follow through, and follow up.
  2. Trusted Advisers challenge your assumptions and help you see what’s hidden in plain sight. Your biases do not inhibit them, so they’ll notice and report issues and opportunities as they find them. 
  3. Off-sites get people out of their comfort zones and open minds to new ideas. These adventures increase trust, strengthen relationships, and improve communication. People report problems and offer fresh ideas when they trust the people around them. Taking people to powerful places like national parks and historic venues creates experiences that last a lifetime and pay massive dividends for your organization.

It’s too bad Pat Fitzgerald did not find ways to peer underneath the camouflage net to see things as they are. 

He’s not alone, of course. Many good people have fallen from grace because they fooled themselves into thinking they could see everything from up high.  

Would an adventure off-site improve trust in your organization? View our programs and schedule a call with Chris to see if it could be a good fit. 

Buy-in occurs when your employees provide voluntary support. 

A significant leadership challenge is gaining buy-in for a new initiative or one people previously opposed. 

Buy-in explains the vital difference between high and low-performing organizations.

Without buy-in, leaders must focus on compliance, dispute resolution, and corrective action, which robs them of time and energy for strategy and growth. This disengagement tax is a hidden cost that drains revenue and undermines your business. 

With buy-in, people do the right things in the right ways voluntarily, which frees leaders to focus on the future. 

Joshua Chamberlain’s ability to gain buy-in saved the Union’s Army of the Potomac at Gettysburg, marking the beginning of the Confederacy’s end.

Two days before the battle, Chamberlain was ordered to guard 120 prisoners accused of desertion. They hailed from the 2nd Maine regiment. The accused believed they had signed two-year enlistments like others in the regiment, instead of three years, and wanted to return home with their comrades.

Chamberlain was given the authority to shoot them if necessary. He’d never be able to return home if he did. Guarding them would reduce his fighting force.

Chamberlain thought differently about the situation: what if they agreed to fight in our ranks for this massive battle?

Chamberlain’s regiment was down to about 250 soldiers. Adding 120 veteran fighters would strengthen his unit significantly.

Chamberlain focused on the three elements of buy-in: clarity on the mission and expectations for the upcoming battle, appeal to their self-interests of dignity, care, honor, and possibility of parole, and providing confidence in the way forward. 

117 of the 120 deserters agreed to pick up their rifles and make the intrepid stand at Little Round Top. Without them, the 20th Maine would have been overrun, opening the entire flank of the Union army.

People buy in when they are clear about the expectations, believe they will be better off by adopting them, and are confident that the initiative or game plan will work.

People might be clear about an expectation and believe it may help them be better off, but won’t buy in without confidence that it will work. Mask fatigue during COVID is a recent example. Companies might believe that a new communications platform will help them be better off, but they won’t adopt it if they lack confidence in the technology or customer service.

By contrast, people can have clarity about a new idea and confidence it will work but won’t buy in if they believe they’ll be worse off. COVID vaccine resistance is a typical example. In your company, people who believe they are on the losing end will resist change. I find this to be the most common buy-in problem. The leaders are convinced everyone’s better off, but employees often find the talking points unconvincing. CNN’s recent employee revolt shows the perils of making changes that people believe leave them worse off.

Finally, employees can believe a particular change makes them better off and have confidence it will work, but will only buy-in for the common good if they are clear about the rationale and the details. Poor clarity results in silos or fiefdoms, where people adopt something good for them but detrimental to the company overall. 

COVID protocols again offer a clear example of confusion, as medical expertise grew politicized and people believed only those who fit their pre-conceived beliefs. A client had challenges getting reports on time because employees did not understand the rationale. Once they gained clarity on that and how lateness was screwing other people, the reports arrived on time, regularly.  

What are your biggest buy-in successes and challenges? 

With so many businesses using flexible work locations, bringing people together for a substantive event that boosts cohesion and strengthens your foundation for growth is more important than ever. 

A company off-site at a historical venue or national park allows you to create an experience that pays dividends for decades. 

Let’s discuss some ideas if you want to do something special for your company.

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Cognitive diversity occurs when you bring people together who have complementary natural strengths, a.k.a. Superpowers. For most organizations, ideas – details are the vital complement.

The ideas people tend to be the big picture strategic thinkers, the innovators, and status quo disruptors. 

Some, like Steve Jobs, are hedgehogs: they have a big idea that will change the world. They are the Mavericks in our PROM archetypes®.

Others, like Elon Musk, are foxes: they bring existing ideas and technologies together into new combinations (Tesla, SpaceX, Twitter). These are your Pioneers.

They rarely succeed without support from the executors who can implement their ideas. These are Operators, who nail the details, and Reconcilers who build and maintain consensus.

Google is a classic example. Visionaries Larry Page (Maverick) and Sergei Brin (Pioneer) excited people with their new search engine but they could not run a sustainable business. When the funders threatened to pull out, Google hired Eric Schmidt (Reconciler) and Jon Rosenberg (Operator). The cognitive diversity propelled Google’s success.

Apple succeeded because Steve Jobs had Tim Cook (Operator), Mark Zuckerberg began succeeding at Facebook (now Meta) after Sheryl Sandberg (Operator) came on board. Tesla struggled until Musk hired Zach Kirkhorn (Reconciler).       

The visionaries get into trouble when they lose their alter-ego. Zuckerberg has not replaced Sheryl Sandberg, dividing her role among various executives, which waters-down the vision-execution interplay. Meta is struggling. 

The reverse is also true: people naturally inclined toward the details need the ideas people to push the envelope and avoid complacency. Tim Cook’s innovative subordinates keep Apple thriving. Eisenhower (Reconciler) needed Montgomery (Maverick) and Patton (Pioneer) to win the war in North Africa and Europe. Lincoln (Reconciler) needed Seward (Pionerr) and Grant (Maverick) to win the Civil War.

Finding the right alter-ego can be challenging. People tend to seek out others who think and act similarly, which is known as affinity bias. You get the comfort of surrounding yourself with people exactly like you, but you don’t grow, you develop blind spots, and you’re at high risk of making bad decisions as you inhale your own fumes.

To help you identify your natural strengths and determine your best alter egos, I developed the simple PROM archetypes® quiz.  

Cognitive diversity is vital to selecting the right alter-egos. You also need someone who wants what’s best for the organization and is willing to tell you the truth. 

Combine those three qualities and you have a powerful senior leadership team that will propel your business to new heights.

Take the PROM archetypes® quiz and then send Chris an email to discuss your results!

How the best leaders avoid being Prigozhined

Frustrated by the Ukraine war, the Russian military’s incompetence, and reported efforts to dismantle his Wagner mercenary group, warlord Yevgeney Prigozhin took over the Rostov-on-Don military headquarters and sent columns of loyalists toward Moscow in what appeared to be a coup to overthrow Vladimir Putin or capture senior military officials. After a day of drama, Prigozhin stood down and accepted exile in Belarus, where he’ll need food tasters and to avoid tall buildings with open windows.

In business, many leaders fear being Prigozhined – having a subordinate stage a coup that takes your job and sends you packing.

To prevent being ousted, fearful leaders surround themselves with weaklings and sycophants, pit subordinates against each other to create rivalries (they can’t band against you if they are fighting each other), and eliminate anyone who might one day become a threat.

It’s the weak leader playbook. Kiss up and kick down, promote pathetic lickspittles, and transfer, fire, or throw anyone who makes a mistake or might outshine you under the bus. They hide this behavior well, so it’s hard for leaders to recognize a Putin subordinate.

There’s one tell-tale sign that helps you cut through the smokescreen. Strong, confident leaders develop their subordinates. Weak ones don’t.

Weak leaders fear strong subordinates and strong subordinates cannot stand weak leaders. Knowing this prompts weak leaders to surround themselves with weaker people and to keep them down by never developing them.

Strong, confident leaders, on the other hand, surround themselves with strong, confident people and develop them. They see their direct reports as part of their legacies and want them to grow and succeed.

Former GE boss Jack Welch gets a fair share of criticism, but one thing he did well was develop a cadre of subordinate leaders who soared to new heights in GE or elsewhere. The best NFL coaches do the same, and the talent they’ve developed uplifts the entire sport.

These strong, confident leaders provide their subordinates with three growth ingredients: development, coaching, and experience.

Leader Growth Model

Development and coaching without experience create ivory tower solutions that don’t work in the real world.

Coaching and experience without development produce a hamster wheel effect, where you aren’t stretching people’s imaginations.

Development and experience without coaching lead to poor implementation and time wasted in trial and error.

Combining all three builds people’s capacity and shortens their paths to success; they gain confidence through challenging experiences that position them for increased responsibilities. 

Do you have Putins living in fear of being Prigozhined? The quickest way to tell is by looking at their professional development programs. They won’t have them. 

They’ll complain about lack of time, insufficient resources, too much on the plate, and “I’m training them on the job,” blah, blah, blah. Frankly, you are better off without them.

Your strongest subordinate leaders, on the other hand, will have robust professional growth programs. They are the ones to promote to more senior positions because they will help your company soar to new heights.

Do you need help with leadership, culture or strategy? Schedule a Call with Chris Kolenda here or view the list of programs offered by Strategic Leadership Academy here.

Optimize your workplace

Just because you can do something does not mean you should do it. Optimization creates unintended consequences that can undermine your business.

Baseball may be the most data-mined sport. Ever since the championship Oakland A’s Moneyball, big data has dominated the game. 

Big data told you where and how to pitch the ball to a given batter, and how to shift players to take advantage of a batter’s tendencies. The strike zone narrowed to give the batters a better chance against 95+ mph fastballs.

Pitchers and batters tried to tilt the odds with mind games – the between-pitch rituals, preening, adjusting, pointing, and glaring.

The result: total boredom. A nine-inning game dragged on for longer than three hours on average. Exciting balls-in-play became fewer; many at-bats ended up in strikeouts, home runs, or outs.  

Baseball analytics optimized the chances of getting the batter out and winning individual games, while losing fans and the soul of the sport.

Changes this year include a pitch clock, a batter clock, and no major shifts. The games are back to 2.5 hour average, with more balls in play, and more fans in the seats. [I saw the Brewers beat the Pirates 5-0 in two hours and fifteen minutes!]

Businesses that seek to optimize the ease and speed of communication offer tools ranging from chat and IM to email, workflow programs, and task organizers, to video and voice calls.

Communication speed and volume are higher than ever, while communication quality could be worse than ever. According to a 2022 Harris poll, managers believe their teams lose an average of 7.47 hours per employee per week due to poor communication. 

Nearly a full workday each week evaporates.

In a 2000-hour work year, you lose 400 hours; the equivalent of 10 weeks per employee. Ouch!

Imagine what you could achieve if your employees got half that time back.

Here are some ways to reduce communication fratricide.

  1. Establish protocols for channel usage. HINT: don’t use chat or IM for anything complex.
  2. If the matter is not resolved in three back-and-forths, get in person, on video, or on the phone to talk it over. In these cases, written cues are not communicating sufficiently, so you need to add verbal and non-verbal cues.
  3. Let people set their messaging engagement times and deep work times. Don’t let perpetual distraction rule the workday.
  4. Set boundaries. Topics like religion, sex, and politics should be off-limits in most workplaces. Ditto goes for disrespect.
  5. Reduce the volume of information emails. Set up a common info-sharing portal where people can make routine updates. This step will reduce the length of meetings, too.

More broadly, consider the tradeoffs before you bandwagon onto a new tool. 

Are you looking to improve the optimization of your business? Consider joining one of our programs or schedule a call with Chris Kolenda. 

3 Ways to Use The Lasso Effect to Improve your Leadership

Ted Lasso leadership isn’t possible in real life.

Ted Lasso is a person of reflexive positivity who remains blissfully ignorant of the job and yet wins everyone over while consistently losing games.

Ted Lasso is not a mentor, he’s a mirror, showing us our own absurdity.

WHY IT MATTERS: When we see what’s wrong, we can fix it. 

Mirror Image #1: Be confident in your ignorance of other people’s motives.

Team owner, Rebecca, hired Ted to coach an English Premier League football team (Americans call the sport soccer) after Ted’s American college football team won a national championship. 

She wanted the team to become a laughingstock to get back at her philandering ex-husband. 

Any sane person would have walked off the job after being sabotaged repeatedly. 

Ted did the unexpected, emotionally connecting with Rebecca in daily “biscuits with the boss,” treating her with kindness despite her frostiness (which she used to hide deep hurt), and respecting her professionally.

You never know what someone is going through, so give them a break. Who knows, maybe they’ll become your biggest champion and strongest ally.

Mirror Image #2: Don’t take the bait; Take the high road.

Today’s polarization revolves around a need to show moral superiority over anyone who disagrees with you.

After Ted helped the team’s equipment assistant, Nate Shelley, discover his game-strategy genius, the latter stabbed his coach in the back and took a head-coaching job at a rival team (hired by Rebecca’s ex-husband). 

Nate’s team won consistently, even as he took cheap shots at Ted, who only treated Nate with respect. 

A security camera caught Nate sneaking into the team’s locker room to tear up Ted’s “Believe” sign. When the two teams met on the pitch, Ted’s assistants decided to show the video to the team at half-time to boost their motivation, even after Ted warned them not to do so.

The video unhinged the team, who wanted revenge and played even more poorly in the second half.

Nate’s deep insecurity motivates him to insult Ted; Ted rolls with the punches and deflects the disparagement with self-effacing humor. 

The need to show your moral superiority is a sign of insecurity and a fast track to getting nothing noteworthy done because you alienate the other side. 

Keep calm and find common ground. It’s hard to roll up your sleeves while wringing your hands.

Mirror Image #3: You cannot show courage when there’s no danger.

Ted engages with people who disagree with him. He talks with irate, insult-hurling fans, welcomes a reporter known for hatchet jobs to do an exclusive on the team, handles prima-donna players by letting them wear themselves out, and never shifts blame.  

He’s willing to put himself in emotional, professional, and moral danger to do the right thing.

Courage, Aristotle said, is the virtue that allows the others to exist. You must be in the arena, doing your best even when the outcome is in doubt, and be willing to take off the body armor and grow. 

Twitter mobs and demagogues are the opposite of courage because they are playing to the crowd, safely ensconced in their own bubbles. 

Pop your bubble; step away from your silo; get out of your comfort zone. You make more progress building bridges than building walls. 

I loved the final episode when Ted asked Trent to change the name of the book title about the team, “It wasn’t about me, it never was.” 

Who’s your mirror? Gaining new perspectives is one of the greatest values of using coaches and advisers. 

Are you ready to see how a trusted advisor can help you achieve your goals? Schedule a call with Chris here. 

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D-Day shows how the best leaders respond. 

General Dwight Eisenhower could not control the Nazi High Command, but he reinforced their biases that General Patton would lead the main attack at the Pas de Calais. The deception enabled the Allies to secure the Normandy beaches and move inland. 

The Germans assumed for six more weeks that Patton would make a more significant landing at Calais. Eisenhower’s deception plan (Operation Fortitude) worked better than he imagined.

Eisenhower could not control the weather nor how well the German military units reacted to the invasion. He postponed the invasion for a day due to bad weather and made a risky call that the seas would be calm enough for the June 6 landings. 

In the quiet hours before the assault, he wrote a letter taking responsibility if the invasion failed.

Eisenhower recognized that he could influence events to a certain extent and that he could determine how he responded to unfolding circumstances.

Brigadier General Norm Cota landed at Omaha Beach with the second wave. The German fire was so intense that the first wave’s survivors crouched behind a retaining wall. German artillery began to take its toll.

Omaha Beach, looking up to the high ground where the Germans dug in.

Cota knew that the troops needed to get moving immediately or get ground down. Individually, each was safer staying put; collectively, they were safer moving forward and attacking the German positions. 

Cota adapted to circumstances and said, “Follow me,” taking the fight to the enemy. Soon thereafter, the Americans broke the German defenses. Cota influenced events by adapting to circumstances.

D-Day, which happened on June 6 79 years ago, holds myriad examples of the interplay between influencing and adapting.

The best leaders recognize their limited control of external factors and exclusive control over how they respond. They are response-able, to use Stephen Covey’s term. 

In so doing they:

  • Refrain from blaming subordinates for outcomes outside their control
  • Resist the temptation to promote people based on good luck
  • Innovate to seize emerging opportunities and mitigate risks
  • Maintain perspective
  • Challenge practices and beliefs that are no longer fit-for-purpose
  • Avoid self-delusion.

The chart below shows the importance.

People who believe they have so much influence over external events that they never have to adapt have spent too much time watching “motivational speakers” and believe everyone else must join their comfort zone. Examples include Twitter mobs, Stanford Law students, bigots, Luddites, and Sears and Blockbuster executives. Such people refuse to adapt; they approach every issue with an open mouth and closed mind. 

By contrast, a person who believes that they cannot influence or adapt are victims adrift in the world.

Someone who believes they cannot influence anything but can only adapt to the forces buffeting them about are like old-school Calvinists who believed in predestination. In business and life, they are the people trapped on the hamster wheel, feeling they can only govern how fast or slow they go and not whether they can get on or off. 

You find people at work who blindly follow orders and fixate on “that’s how we’ve always done it.” They don’t innovate, they stay in the ruts others have made for them because they don’t believe they can make any difference.

Leaders who believe they can influence, not control, events but can control how they respond are response-able. Like Eisenhower and Cota, they innovate, seize opportunities, and avoid blame games. 

Amazon could not control information technology, but they adapted to the new realities and drove Sears out of business. Netflix did the same to Blockbuster.

Understanding what you can and cannot control leads to sound judgment.

What is your top takeaway from this article? Write a comment, DM me on LinkedIn, or email me at

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