The Voice for Insightful Leadership with Shelley Row, P.E.

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He worked fast and it was mesmerizing to watch.

I was speaking at Asbury Communities on leadership decision-making using infotuition. As I spoke, Bruce drew.  Bruce is an illustrator who graphically records programs as they unfold.  It is remarkable to watch him work. His approach is an artistic metaphor for leaders.  Here’s what Bruce taught me.

Plan Ahead.  Working with huge 4’x8’white boards, Bruce thoughtfully planned ahead before starting to draw.  He studied the content before arriving and had an understanding of the key points and the milestones in my program. He knew what to listen for as he drew. This gave him a feel for how much content would fit on a board and how to space out the work. It’s the same for those who lead.  You don’t have complete clarity about exactly how the future will unfold. Still, you must study enough to have a sense for the major indicators and milestones to watch for.  It’s a plan of what to watch for as you go. That’s how it was for Bruce.  He had a general feel for how the program would unfold and he adapted as he went.  Leaders, too, must adapt as they go. They must make their best guess in the moment, plan ahead and be ready to adapt in the moment.

Listening.  Bruce’s ability to illustrate matched his listening skills.  He wasn’t attending to his own thoughts and judgments; he was listening to me and to the dialog from the audience.  He didn’t impose his interpretation; rather, he reflected what he heard from us. Leaders must also be good listeners.  You have to intently listen to others in order to create a well-balanced picture of a situation or decision. Leaders truly hear what others have to say, and allow diverse perspectives to color their opinion and final decision. Like Bruce’s drawing, the result emerges as a combination of input from the group.

Clear Message. When each segment of the program was complete, Bruce spent a few minutes to refine what he’d captured and enhanced it visually.  This final step aided the viewer to more easily view and appreciate his work. In the many interviews I conducted with leaders, they have a note-worthy ability to simplify a message so that the receiver grasps and relates to the concept.  That’s not so different from Bruce. He had to represent what he heard in a way that others saw themselves in the illustration and they related to it.  A complicated, jumbled message will not resonate, connect or be received well by the observer.  The art of clarity and simplification is a key attribute for a successful leader.  An executive friend once told me, “If I can’t explain it, I can’t sell it.” And so it is for leaders.

On the surface, Bruce’s work looks like art but dig under the surface and you find that he planned, listened and represented a conversation so it would be memorable and relevant to others.  That’s what an artful leader does. Plan ahead, listen to others and skillfully interpret the message. When it’s done well, it’s mesmerizing.

Illustration by  Bruce Van Patter/Crowley & Co.

5434786_mThe big day was approaching. By “big day” I don’t mean election day (which can’t come soon enough) or a wedding day, I mean the Super Bowl—THE big day for U.S. sports fans. To be clear, I am not a U.S. sports fan, but even people like me watch the Super Bowl. My friend is a casual watcher of football but then on the lead up to Super Bowl he turns into a hardcore fan. He keeps up with all the latest news and even bets on the playoffs at! It’s just something the Superbowl does to you. Not because of the game (maybe for the nachos and hot wings), but for the commercials. This year there was even a special television program recapping the top 50 Super Bowl commercials.

What’s your favorite Super Bowl commercial. … it? Maybe it’s the Mean Joe Green Coca-Cola commercial from years ago. Perhaps the one with the little boy dressed like Darth Vader who uses “The Force” to start his dad’s VW (my personal favorite); or the Cindy Crawford Pepsi commercial.

Super Bowl commercials have much to teach us about how to connect with and motivate people. We have a habit of relying solely on money and promotions to be the key motivators. They are referred to as extrinsic motivators. They work to a point. We underestimate the power of intrinsic motivators – those attributes of the job that makes us feel good about helping others and make us feel that we are using our skills well.

What neuroscience now shows is that intrinsic motivators such as doing work that benefits others activates the brain’s reward system.[i] As researchers Jesse Newton and Josh Davis state, “Management by objectives is a far more limited mental schema than management by aspiration.”

Consider Budweiser commercials. Budweiser had more commercials in the top 50 Super Bowls ads than any other company. With that many ads, we must be motivated to buy their beer because we know their high-quality ingredients and the details of their brewing process. Or not. Think about the content of Budweiser’s high-priced ads. For the most part, Budweiser devoted the most expensive television advertising opportunity to horses and puppies. Let me repeat that – horses and puppies. Why would they do that?

Budweiser like other savvy communicators (that’s what advertising is) understands that we (the brain) respond well to stories with emotional connections to the things we care about. Those horses and puppies are guaranteed to create an “aww” response. These are intrinsic motivators that motivate from inside.

As you consider your staff, what types of motivation do you rely on? Is all about the bonus at the end of the year or the promise of a promotion? If yes, you may be thinking, “Why is that not enough?” Easy. There are no horses and puppies.

I’m not saying you should stop bonuses or promotions…please don’t. I am saying don’t limit yourself to that. Add in a generous helping of intrinsic motivators. Recognize exceptional levels of effort and explicitly point out how that effort results in something good for others and for the company. Praise acts of kindness and collaboration when a team supports each other for the good of the whole. Their brains already are feeling good. You make the brain’s reward circuits dance with recognition.

We can do this if we shift our thinking. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t have bonuses and promotions – we should. And, we need horses and

[i] Newton, Jesse and Davis, Josh. Three Secrets of Organizational Effectiveness.



This pocket-sized book is a convenient reminder of how to avoid the five pitfalls of over-thinking so that you can decide and move on.

  • Over-analyze decisions
  • Over-reliance on rules, processes and procedures
  • Overly-narrow focus
  • Overly-protective thinking
  • Overly-dependent on approval

This Minibük makes a perfect give-away at your event or a companion to the Avoid the Pitfalls of Over-Thinking program. Contact Shelley for a price discount on orders of 50 books or more.

Program Focus: Leadership Development, Decision-Making

If you’ve ever felt “stuck” while your mind whirls and churns, then you know what over-thinking is like. Over-thinking makes the easy hard, the obvious obscure, and commonsense not so common.

This program breaks through the five leadership pitfalls of over-thinking:

  • Over-analyzing decisions
  • Over-reliance on rules, processes and procedures
  • Overly narrow focus
  • Overly protective thinking
  • Being overly dependent on approval

This program is best for mid-level to more senior leaders. It is well suited for a workshop or seminar that includes extensive interaction. It can also be delivered as a keynote, breakout and virtually. A companion Minibük is a value-added addition to this program.

Leadership Pitfalls of Over-Thinking Minibük by Shelley Row

Participant Comments:

  • Makes you re-look at yourself and better understand how and why you make decisions. Will help you handle that tough decision better.
  • Shelley helped me to write down my values, understand my triggers and to have faith in my gut.
  • Shelley is positive, knowledgeable and creative. Shelley is inspirational and really down to earth. Shelley is making a difference in transportation and future leadership.
  • Everyone LOVED your presentation. You single-handedly made this training the best ever!


01-18Last week, I participated in my first speaker showcase. More than 20 speakers provided ten minutes of their program to a room full of 200 meeting planners. Hearing different a motivational christian speaker throughout the day it brought nerves on. It was like speed dating for speakers. I practiced and prepared like crazy for my ten minutes. But I was unprepared for the onslaught of speakers.
There were those with boisterous bravado, theatrical hijinks, and yelling into the microphone. They had the audience laughing and clapping. “Uh-oh,” I thought. I began to doubt my program. Was I loud enough? Was I funny enough? Was I dramatic enough? What could I do to be more like them? Continue reading

By the time I arrived, she was groggy, clammy and complaining of chest pains. The emergency management technicians (EMTs) drove up to my mother’s house in spite of me giving them the wrong address. Red lights reflected off the windows as they pulled into the driveway. Later that night we learned that she had a mild heart attack from which she recovered within a few days, thanks to expert care.

As I reflect back on the events of that evening, I’m struck by the EMTs’ ability to meld a logical, data-driven process with careful listening, collaboration, and full attention. We can learn from their approach for our business dealings.

First, let’s look at the logical, data-driving process they employed.

Context and careful listening. Two young men with pounds of equipment walked into my mother’s house. “Tell us what happened,” they said. We explained the situation and her medical history. Throughout, they listened intently while looking me straight in the eye. They asked clarifying questions and repeated the situation back to me to ensure they were clear.

Collect data and monitor with full attention. Once they understood the situation, they started data collection and monitoring of blood pressure, EKGs, and pulse rate. They checked the data several times to confirm their findings. With more questions about her history, they established a picture of her immediate health with the data to back it up. They were 100% focused on and attentive to her and her reactions: Did this this hurt? Is that uncomfortable? Excuse me as I attach the EKG leads. All attention was on her. There were no distractions.

Decide with collaboration. Now they were armed with context, data and trends. It was enough to make a decision about a prudent course of action. They discussed their recommendation with me along with the reasons. The top priority was the best care for her. We collaborated on the options with a common goal. Soon, we were loaded into a helicopter on our way to a large hospital in Austin. Within 30 minutes, my mother was in a skilled ER undergoing a full gamut of tests and treatments.

Perhaps you are thinking that there is nothing remarkable in this scenario. Consider for a moment what didn’t happen. We essentially had a “business” meeting in the living room but it was unlike most business meetings. In our meeting, we did not step on each other’s sentences trying to be the next to speak. We didn’t interrupting each other in our zeal to communicate our idea. No one insisted that their idea was the best way forward. No one pretended to listen while also checking their cell phone.
All of us would benefit from using these three principles practiced by EMTs to improve meetings and their outcome.

• Listening. Each person listens to the other with the intention to understand – truly understand. There are few interruptions because each person seeks to grasp the points of view of the others. It is common to hear, “Let me repeat that back to make sure I understand.”
• Collaboration. Everyone collaborates respectfully by taking advantage of what the others bring to the situation. Each person has unique perspectives and points of view. Imagine the wisdom available in the room if all of it is accessed in the discussion. Cooperation only works when each person is open to the ideas of others and release the strangle-hold on their own idea.
• Attention. Everyone is fully present in the moment without distractions. Research shows that accuracy reduces by as much as 50% for both tasks when multi-tasking. Can you afford to reduce the quality of the meeting by that much in order to check emails or text? That should not be okay for any of us. It certainly would not have worked for my mother’s health. With full attention, all participants can work toward a common goal without the need to push a particular point of view.

Imagine what a business meeting would be like if we adhered to these principles in every business meeting. Imagine the collaborative energy, the focused attention and the ability to find the most productive solution that takes advantage of everyone’s skills. EMTs may not be the CEO of a company or earning the big bucks in a corporate environment but, there’s a lot we can learn from EMTs about the value of listening, collaboration and attention. If you don’t believe me, just ask my mother.

In leadership positions it’s inevitable that situations arise that generate an emotional reaction. Some emotions are low grade but others are like five-alarm fires. We are taught to control our emotions in the workplace to be credible, strong and unshakable. “Don’t let them see you sweat.” “There’s no place for feelings at work.” The emotionless approach is a badge of honor but it may hinder your leadership effectiveness. Here’s why.

Let’s say you are working with an employee to change the way their approach to management of a project. You’ve discussed it again and again. You think they understand then, out of the blue, they use the old approach. It isn’t a deal breaker for the project but it annoys you. How many times do you have to discuss this?

At that moment, the amygdala in your brain (your alarm bell) has gone off. They amygdala calls on long-term memory that confirms the many times you counseled the employee on this topic. The amygdala sends the alert that something has gone awry and it triggers an emotional reaction.

As the leader, you know that you don’t want to yell, stomp your feet or behave inappropriately. So what are your options?

Suppress your reaction. You fight the emotional reaction by reasoning with yourself. “I’m not going to let this get to me. It isn’t worth getting upset about. Don’t think about it. Let it go.” Have you noticed that the more you say, “I’m not going to think about this” the more you think about it? Exactly. Research validates that the harder you think about suppressing the emotion the more engaged the amygdala is. Suppression does not reduce the brain’s reactivity. Further, the energy you expend to suppress the reaction takes away the energy you need for memory. You are less effective due to the lack of resources for cognitive functioning of your brain.
Clearly, this doesn’t work so what does?

Consider the emotion. Thinking about emotional suppression doesn’t work but consciously examining your feelings does. Research shows that people who probe their feelings actually deactivate the amygdala. I know – it seems counterintuitive. But when you hold your emotion up to the light, roll it around, and give it a name, it validates the emotion and calms the amygdala. An added bonus is that the cognitive part of your brain remains online. Your memory is not impaired and you can more objectively view the situation and your options.

Reframe the situation. You can also reframe or reappraise the situation. In my experience, this works best after you name the emotion and calm the amygdala somewhat. Then you ask, “Is there another way of looking at this?” Your brain brings up the stored memory and context. However, just because you remember it doesn’t mean it’s accurate or exclusive. In this instance, perhaps the employee believed the situation was different and, therefore, warranted an altered approach. Or perhaps the employee is going through a difficult personal situation and their cognitive ability (and memory) is impaired. What are the other possibilities? Reframing the situation calms the amygdala and brings cognitive consideration to the situation.

When those emotional situations hit – stop trying to suppress the emotion. It only makes it worse. Instead, acknowledge the emotion, name it and ask if there are other ways to look at the situation. You will find yourself with a calmer frame of mind which enables you to choose the best response…the response worthy of a leader.

Yes, you read that correctly: Leadership lessons from Janis Joplin. I know. I’m surprised, too. My husband and I, along with several friends, saw “One Night with Janis Joplin” at Arena Stage in Washington, DC. I never expected a lesson in leadership from a make-believe Janis Joplin concert. Right off the bat let me be clear – I barely remember Janis Joplin, and growing up with a band director, Lt Colonel for a father, Janis Joplin’s music was never going to come within a mile of our house. I’d be hard pressed to name a single Janis Joplin song – until that night’s performance. So I’m not here to glorify her, her music or her lifestyle. But I do want to share the unexpected leadership lessons.

Janis grew up as a misfit until she found her niche – singing the blues. Lots of people find music but she felt it more keenly – or maybe she allowed herself to feel it more. In an interview with Dick Cavett he asked what she was thinking as she performed. She said, “I’m not really thinking. I’m just trying to feel.” And feel she did. Her feelings burst through in her performances with raw and tangible emotion. On stage was perhaps the place where she could be most authentic.

Today, much is written about the need for leaders to be authentic. In my research on the role of intuition in leadership I find that leaders from all backgrounds are self-aware, know their values, and align their behaviors with their values. It creates authenticity. It’s safe to say that those leaders “feel” the connection between who they are as a person and who they are as a leader. And, they communicate it with less screaming than Janis’ vocals.

The most striking lesson is commitment. When Janis performed, she Committed – with a capital C. There was no doubt that everything inside her was left on the stage and in the lap of the audience. Janis said, “If I hold back, I’m no good. I’d rather be good sometimes, than holding back all of the time.”

Bravo for her. Hard for most of us. And, I think, hard for her, too. We underestimate what it takes to be that committed. For any artist who has painted a work of art, written a book, recited poetry, or acted in a play (or written a blog about Janis Joplin) – it takes courage to put yourself on display for everyone to see. Most of us hedge – we try a little bit, test the waters; or monitor others’ reactions. What would your leadership be like if you were committed with a capital C; if you weren’t hedging, camouflaging, and ooching along?

Here’s the thing about commitment, it leaves you vulnerable. I watched the performer who played Janis Joplin (and later the videos of the real Janis) sing her heart out – literally. Both of them made it clear that a performance is not something detached from you – it is you. Whether you wish it or not, you open yourself to commentary and dissection. It is not for the faint-hearted.

In Brené Brown’s book, “Daring Greatly.” She defines vulnerability as uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure. In her research she asks people how vulnerability feels. Answers included:
• Going out on a limb- a very, very high limb.
• It feels like fear, every single time.
• Being all in.

Being all in leaves us open to vulnerability and that is scary. I feel the fear just thinking about it. Janis must have, too, but there was something inside her that made her prefer opening herself with every song than to play to others’ approval. Part of being a leader is finding the courage to act in spite of the vulnerability. Brené talks about her feelings of vulnerability as she stepped onto the TED stage. She said to herself, “Give me the courage to show up and let myself be seen.”

What would authentic, committed and vulnerable leadership look like?
• More audacious; less wary.
• More willing to trust yourself; less hedging.
• More willing to try, fail, and try; less worried about what “should” be done.

Janis didn’t hedge; she wasn’t wary and she certainly didn’t worry about the “shoulds.” When I think back on my own leadership behaviors, I can’t say the same. I hedged, ooched and worried. I wore the armor of caution and others’ approval, and – I don’t think I’m alone.

I could have done better. So what about your leadership? What kind of leader is inside hoping to be set free? What would it be like to go out there tomorrow and do the thing you know needs to be done; the thing you’d do if you were all in; the thing you’d do if there was no fear? What if you just stepped up and did it?

Let’s lead like Janis sang – authentic, committed and vulnerable. It’s about being all in. If she were here, she’d say, “Oh! Yeah, man!”

Whether your technical expertise is in engineering (like mine), law, finance, technology or science, we technical folks don’t have good reputations as managers.  When a technically accomplished person is promoted into management, suddenly the old skills that made us successful are not as relevant. It’s a whole new ball game and a whole new set of skills. As we always said: Technical skills are the easy part. People skills are the hard part.


Technically-talented managers can become perplexed by people issues, stymied by office politics and mystified by seemingly illogical decisions made by “management”. You don’t have to be perplexed, stymied or mystified if you have all the information you need.

Here are 10 thinks that every technical person should know when they become a manager and leader.

  1. Know your staff
  2. Know you
  3. Know your boss
  4. Know the influencers
  5. Know the factors other than the data that are influencing organizational trajectory
  6. Know the person who can get things done in the office
  7. Know a broad range of information sources
  8. Know how to challenge your initial impressions
  9. Know your vision for the organization
  10. Know your leadership philosophy

To further develop your knowledge in these ten areas, click here, to receive questions to prompt your learning.

Contact Shelley Row to assist you and your staff to grow your skills as an insightful leader.


It was supposed to be an easy cruise. That’s what they told me.  The  47’ Morris sailboat, sailed the Newport to Bermuda race and finished second in her class. We were part of the crew sailing her back to Newport.  And, it was my first sailing trip. To say that the trip didn’t go as planned is an understatement if there ever was one. We made it back safe and sound because of the quality of the boat and the experience of the crew – except for me. When we left I still didn’t know a jib from a halyard or port from starboard.

The trip, expected to be a little more than three days, took five due to adverse weather. The only thing calm was the crew. The seas were rough almost from the start and became even rougher when we crossed the Gulf Stream. The evening we hit the Gulf Stream, we encountered three 50-knot squalls in quick succession with 10’ to 12’ seas. Due to the rough weather, the boat had a series of issues. The auto pilot stopped working on day one, the engine stopped on day two, during the storm the reef line on the mainsail broke, the halyard on the jib broke, the furler jammed, the tack of the spinnaker let go and, later, the spinnaker artfully wrapped itself around the forestay. During the worst of the storm, lines fell into the water and promptly wound themselves around the propeller shaft. I’m told that none of this is unusual but to have them all happen on one voyage was remarkable. By the time we arrived in Newport, everything I brought to wear was wet. The quick-dry fabric never dried.  Collectively, we smelled like a 50’ wet tennis shoe. Are we having fun yet?

As I lay in the narrow bunk, heeled 30 degrees, I listening to the storm tear at the boat and sails. And, I listened to the crew tackle each adversity calmly, collaboratively, decisively and transparently. Do you do the same when adversity hits your organization?GettyImages-87990433-590a5aae5f9b58647047e624

Calm. It was one problem after another in quick succession in rough weather. It would have been unnerving except for the calm of the captain. With each calamity, he talked to the crew – no raised voice, panic, of exasperation. The intensity of the situation stood in clear contrast to his calm demeanor.  As an insightful leader, how do you manage stress and outwardly demonstrate calm?

Collaborate. When a problem was solved, something else broke. Each time, the captain collaborated with the crew. What happened? What are the pros/cons of each option? This was no dictatorship. Neither was it a democracy. It was informed leadership. How do you collaborate under stress to capture and objectively weigh all options? Our captain based his decisions on crew input. Do you truly listen to others?

Decisive. The conversations between the captain and crew were quick, succinct and decisive. The captain listened, made a decision, and that was that. Other ideas were dropped, and action was taken. Are your decisions crisp, clear and strong? Once you decide, don’t waiver. There’s time later to evaluate and adjust. For now, give staff clear directions to follow.

Transparent. We were in a tough spot. Some of us were not experienced sailors and the situation was a wee bit unnerving (to say the least). It would have been easy for the captain to sugar-coat our predicament under the pretense of not alarming us.  Instead, he was honest and transparent. In a matter-of-fact manner, he shared the realities of each situation and decision. The transparency was reassuring and created trust. Are you being transparent with your staff about difficult situations? Yes, some topics can’t be discussed openly, and it is not constructive to publicly debate every option.  However, once a decision is made, it is helpful to share the decision, the rationale behind the decision and the implications. People understand that not everything goes as expected, but people don’t like to be in the dark. That creates suspicion and erodes trust. Transparency does the opposite.

I confess that I’m not ready for another cruise like this one, but I’m grateful for the crew and for the lessons: be calm, collaborate, be decisive and transparent.

Have you been hit by a storm? In life, in business, in a relationship?  What about in your finances, or in your relationships? Next time you’re dealing with the raging winds and powerful waves of the storms surrounding your business or your personal life, keep these four anchors in mind!