The Martial Arts Approach to Discipline

Congratulations, you have been promoted to a position of management. In addition to the modest spike in pay, there is also an increase in both prestige and power. And, if you never have to deal with a low performing or difficult employee, the new position would be ideal. However, eventually, you will have to performance manage or discipline one of your direct reports. Sometimes, no matter what a boss does or how compassionate s/he might be towards their staff, there will come a time when performance management and/or disciplinary actions are unavoidable. It is at this point that the realization of having power over someone reveals the unbearable heaviness of supervision.

As the boss you must be exceedingly careful. If you don’t handle your enormous power both carefully and correctly, a wrongful discharge suit may very well be in your future. You have to keep a paper trail, just in case of potential litigation. Yet and still, you cannot ‘set the employee up’; you must give the person every opportunity to correct the performance deficiency and bring their performance back to an acceptable level. Now performance management is different from misconduct breaches, like stealing, falsification, fighting, et al. In the case of misconduct, there are instances where the employee is immediately terminated due to the gravity of the offense. However, in cases of substandard performance, the issue is not so black and white. The employee may be a good person who is trying very hard, but just isn’t “cutting it”, so to speak. In fact, the person could be a former peer who you’ve socialized and commiserated with on prior occasions. But, now you are the boss and others are watching to see how you handle this and other performance management issues. Well, in the HR world, we employ what is called “Progressive Discipline.”

Progressive discipline insures that, at the very least, procedural due process is accorded the employee. What this means is that you follow certain procedure steps to insure that the employee gets a fair shake. Although procedural due process is necessary, it might not always be sufficient. For example, simply creating the optics of procedural due process, when the decision to terminate the employee has already been made—and there is nothing they can do to change your decision is a failure to provide substantive due process. So, what’s a boss to do? Well, I always kept an open mind and told the employee on a performance improvement plan (PIP) that nothing would please me more than their proving my assessment of them wrong.

I employed what I called my Zen approach. My Zen approach took the elements of trained martial artists and applied them to performance management. In reality, my Zen approach was really Progressive Discipline interpreted in the way a Kung Fu practitioner would deal with a potential encounter. Therefore, I recommend using the following steps:

  1. Observe the person’s behavior (performance) before assuming anything,
  2. Warn before confronting (a face-to-face review of expectations meeting)
  3. Confront ( verbal warning) before injuring ( written warning)
  4. Injure (written warning)before maiming (performance improvement plan-PIP)
  5. Maim  (PIP) before you terminate employment
  6. Terminate before you belittle or shame
  7. Respect their efforts, to insure a dignified exit

In summary, what Progressive Discipline consist of is 1) a verbal warning, 2) a written warning, 3)  a performance improvement plan (PIP) that is SMART—i.e., Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time bound, and,4) a decision to retain or release.

HR’s Role: Advocate, Agent or Strategist?

“To often, HR’s role in the organization is to come in and shoot the wounded.”

-Kwame S. Salter

Over the past 20 years or so, HR’s role in the organization has gone through seismic changes. Before becoming Human Resources, we were Personnel; before we claimed we were a strategic function, we were satisfied with being administrative; and, before we sought to be respected as “partners in the business”, we were generally viewed as ‘aides- de –camps’ to the business leaders. In fact, in many organizations, the HR function was viewed as the final resort for employees who had plateaued or deemed incapable of making it in the metrics driven world of business. In fact, during interviews HR applicants often cited “getting along with people” as their primary qualification for the job. Granted, prior to technology taking over many of the processing and recordkeeping tasks, the HR function was primarily consumed with what I call ‘administrivia’. According to several experts, HR is still seen by many line managers as “clerical and lower level administrative aides to the organization.”

Yet, HR has always had three major roles in the organization—administrative, operational and strategic. Again, of the three major roles associated with HR, the administrative role was dominant. The operational role consisted of two conflicting realities that begged to be balanced—being an agent of the company and an advocate for the employees. Too often, the role of employee advocate consisted of setting up sham grievance procedures—be they 3 or 5 steps. While these grievance procedures were designed to satisfy ‘due process’, the outcome was often predetermined—the employee would lose. Instead of functioning as an honest broker in the process, the HR professional always knew who ‘buttered his/her bread’—the company. Thus, employees begin to take a cynical view of the process and the HR professional. With the administrative and operational roles being so prominent, there was little interest shown in or time left for addressing the strategic role.

However, in recent years the HR function has attempted to repurpose it’s role as more of a strategic contributor to business success instead of simply the organization’s cat’s paw—concerned, primarily, with administrivia and keeping employees in line. Metrics have replaced morale as the measuring stick for a successful HR function. Today’s HR professional should be more focused on “devising and implementing strategy” rather than policing the employee base. Being strategic does not mean abandoning the administrative and operational roles of HR—it means rebalancing the time, effort and resources of the HR function to achieve business results.

Put another way, HR—if it wants to become a real partner in the business—must be clued in and contribute to the stated business objectives and goals. For example, if the organization has determined that new products and innovation is needed to survive and prosper, the HR function’s strategic role is to attract, select and place employees with the necessary skill sets and qualifications. This may sound simplistic. Yet, so often HR often lags behind the organization’s shift in strategy. As Peter Senge, author of the 5th Discipline, stated, “the only sustainable competitive advantage a organization has is the ability of its employees to learn faster than the competition.” Therefore, the HR function/practitioner must be agile, nimble and responsive. Also, I might add, the HR practitioner must be business savvy, independent thinkers and courageous.

This brings me to my beef with current HR practices. Today, too many HR practitioners are more concerned with pleasing business leaders versus challenging them; with being flunkies instead of being independent thinkers; and, with rubber-stamping bad decisions rather than reversing them. To be strategic means to be fearless when moving into uncharted territory; it means to do what’s best for the business versus what’s best for maintaining a relationship with the business leader you support. HR may have gained a seat at the table—but, also has the potted plant sitting in the middle of the table. The effective HR professional must earn the right to be heard and respected or be relegated to being a silent partner. To avoid the fate of being a silent partner, HR practitioners have to establish themselves by:

  • Improving their business acumen
  • Taking the long view and becoming proactive
  • Sourcing the right type of employees needed execute business strategies
  • Employing the right metrics that drive business success

In regards to metrics, let me share a thought from Albert Einstein, who once observed, Everything that can be counted does not necessarily count; everything that counts cannot necessarily be counted.




Picking Leaders!


“Leadership is not a position, noun or an adjective, it is an action verb.”

Kwame S. Salter

Leadership is a very elusive concept to define. We know it when we see it in action. Similarly, we know when there is an absence of leadership. The mountain of leadership literature, notwithstanding, what we don’t know is how to identify and develop effective leaders. However, we still debate the age-old question of whether leaders are born or made. And, while we carry on this debate, the problems and challenges we face daily are becoming more and more complex and wicked.

Today, organizations are in the throes of a deep leadership crisis. Their process for identifying, selecting and developing leaders is flawed. Instead of substance, we place more emphasis on the individual’s traits, appearance (gender and ethnicity), and social personality. They assume that if a person possesses certain traits they will become effective leaders when placed in a senior level position. Sadly, too many people still think that a senior level position will unlock the leadership capabilities of the new incumbent. However, lacking the qualities needed for real leadership, many of these so-called “can’t miss” high potentials become experts on describing, rather than solving, the problems and challenges we face on a daily basis.

Real leaders don’t wait until they are promoted to exercise and demonstrate leadership. They become experts at expanding the solution space; they often “ask for forgiveness instead of permission”; they make things happen instead of sitting around “wondering what happened.” Most importantly, they take a position instead of waiting to be promoted to a leadership position. Yet, according to the pundits, the one thing that they are certain of is that managers are not leaders.

In fact, they imply that leaders aren’t managers and managers can’t be leaders. They resort to clever quips and quotes to suggest that leaders are qualitatively superior to managers. Yet, most, if not all, leaders evolve from the ranks of managers. Therefore, my premise is that leaders exist at all levels of the organization. Effective leaders are effective managers and good managers must be good leaders. The organization or enterprise that will not only survive, but also prosper, into the next decade will be intentional about developing leaders at all levels.

Over my many years of being in leadership positions and identifying leaders, I have observed 7 qualities, each beginning with the letter “I”, that potential leaders exhibit, regardless of their level in the organization. These qualities are combination of both innate and learned behaviors. The 7 qualities I have observed in people who make excellent leaders are the following:

  • Initiative:Readiness and ability in initiating action
  • Intuition:A keen and quick insight
  • Insight:Penetrating mental vision or discernment
  • Integrity: Adherence to moral and ethical principles
  • Intellect:The capacity for thinking and acquiring knowledge, especially of a high or complex order
  • Instinct:A innate impulse or tendency towards action
  • Introspection: The act or process of looking into oneself

Assessing talent using these 7 qualities will insure that you are improving the probability of successfully identifying future leaders–who are still in the pipeline, waiting to be promoted. As Michael Jordan once said, ” There is no ‘I’ in Team, but there is in Win.” I guarantee you that incorporating the 7 “I’s” listed above your organization will have a winning leadership team.

Keeping Score? The Ferguson Aftermath

“If we are playing for fun, why keep score?”

-Al McGuire, Coach

 I am saddened in equal measure by the Ferguson Grand Jury’s proclamation and the opportunistic reaction of roving bands of thieves and thugs bent on pillage, not protest. The nagging question for me is “who provoked whom?” Did the Grand Jury’s decision give the thieves and thugs the excuse they needed to break into businesses in their own community? Or did the video of Michael Brown in the convenience store pocketing cigarillos unduly influence the Grand Jury’s deliberations? What role did the media play in reducing a convoluted situation into a simplistic “white cop kills unarmed black teenager” scenario?  Having some experience with the media, I know that the media does not pick sides—it creates sides. Setting an antagonist against a protagonist sells more magazine copies, brings more eyes to TV and computer screens, and improves ratings and circulation. As Marshall McLuhan concluded, “the medium is the message.” Videos are powerful mini-movies that capture a point in time and can be interpreted by a skilled lawyer to represent the exact opposite of what it captures. For example, both Brown and Wilson were the same height—six foot and four inches tall. However, young Brown was much heavier.

Lost in all of this kerfuffle is the avoidable death of an unarmed Michael Brown, Jr. and the rationalization or demonization of Officer Wilson’s action. As a parent, I am sure that Michael’s mother and father would rather have their son alive than an indictment of Darren Wilson for his murder. Whether you are a Black or White parent, somewhere in your heart you must empathize with the Browns. Michael Brown, Jr. is dead. He did not have a chance to explain, defend or justify his behavior or actions.

Tragically, Darren Wilson has become a pawn in a sinister game of racial finger pointing. Some will conclude that the Grand Jury’s refusal to indict him is tantamount to rendering him innocent. On the contrary, the effect of the Grand Jury’s decision was to raise questions about his innocence. Unfortunately, too many of us see the race issue as a game ball that we kick around. I still cringe at the now faded and grainy video images of blacks celebrating the OJ Simpson verdict. As the British would say, I was gob smacked.  I kept thinking about how OJ’s legal team was able to transform his image from a multi-millionaire golden boy celebrity without a racial identification into an oppressed black man being railroaded by a racist criminal justice system.

We Americans—all of us—are hooked on keeping score in this game of racial tag. We tend to socialize with people who agree with us, listen to and watch only the media pundits and solicitous politicians who reinforce our racial beliefs and stereotypes.  No pun intended, we see issues regarding race in terms of black and white. We do not want a drop of grey to seep into our black and white realities. We are trapped comfortably in our own perceptions of reality. The thick bands of insulation we have built up around our perceptions insure that no contradictions can enter our mental framework. However, only through contradictions can we grow and learn.

One undeniable contradiction is we have more in common than we are willing to admit. We are first and foremost human beings. We have the same physical design, the same emotional make up and the same physiological processes. Some of us are taller, heavier, faster or stronger. Still, we all feel pain, joy, fear and love—the color of our skin, notwithstanding. I remember reading an interview with a mixed race pro athlete who asked his black father why he married a “white woman”? His father replied, “I picked her. God painted her.” With this simple and profound response in mind, I submit that we must internalize the fact that our color is secondary to our humanity. The Michael Brown Jr. and Darren Wilson and the Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman tragedies (along with too many more similar situations) should teach us that the loss of an innocent life and the demonization of another is a painful human experience that diminishes each of us. We must start the process of breaking free from our prisons of racial perceptions. As Kurt Vonnegut once said, “The doors of hell are locked from the inside.”

Let’s open these doors by 1) viewing each human life as having value, 2) looking at each situation from the perspective of our many roles such as grandparent, parent, aunt, uncle, sister, brother, cousin, nephew or friend, 3) abandoning the score keeping mentality that racial hatred requires, and 4) having the audacity to operate out of love for—versus fear of—each other. I am sure that Michael Brown Jr. did not get up on that fateful morning planning to get into a confrontation with a white policeman. And, I also suggest that Darren Wilson’s To Do List did not include killing an unarmed black teenager. Yet whatever provoked the situation was not serious enough to result in killing another human being. This is why an open and transparent proceeding should take place so that we all can learn from this encounter. To be found not guilty is not to be found innocent.

To become so numb to the loss of human life for the sake of winning an argument is barbaric. My fellow Americans, we are better than this.


As a student and teacher of organizational behavior, I have always been intrigued by the role a leader plays in galvanizing people to rally around his/her vision. The literature on leadership is replete with examples of different styles, approaches and philosophies adopted by successful leaders. By inference, it is suggested that all one has to do is study, learn and adopt one of these styles to become an effective and successful leader.

We have been introduced to the Authentic leader, the Corporate Mystic leader, the Situational leader and the High EQ (emotional intelligence) leader. By putting forth Diamond Leadership (one who is both a directional and servant leader) as another effective style of leadership. I have added to this list in my book. All of these styles are legitimate and can be effective, if practiced with sincerity—and in the appropriate context. Still, to be truly effective, leadership must go beyond styles and dive deep into the area of substance.

Substance is built upon one simple, yet profound, concept, i.e., Trust. Regardless of what leadership style you employ, without trust that style will not be effective over the long haul. People, your employees, will eventually see through the style mask. If they conclude that your real essence is something other than the style you lead with, they will not commit to you or your vision. In a word, once they no longer trust you the gig is up. They will still hear you but will not listen to you. They will still work with you, but not for you. Trust is the industrial strength glue that bonds the leader with their people. Gaining trust takes a long time. Losing trust can happen in an instant. Regaining trust is a monumental undertaking. Trust is not a question of style. It is the result of being consistently truthful and impeccable with your word. Trust flows from character.

Character is whom you really are deep down inside. It is the combination of values, attitudes, beliefs and behaviors that define you at rest—when there is no audience or others to impress or manipulate. Character traits are revealing behaviors that expose your hard wiring. For example, a leader or person who likes to be in charge may have the following character traits: know-it-all, rude, pompous, conceited or bossy. Character is foundational for building trust. Flowing from a good character is Integrity.

Years ago, the New York Times newspaper had a one-page insert that proclaimed, “If you’re good when nobody’s looking, that’s integrity.” Integrity, according to the Dictionary is “adherence to moral and ethical principles; soundness of moral character; honesty.” Peter Drucker once said, “ There is no such thing as business ethics. Either you are always ethical or you’re not.” Clearly, integrity does not fall into the ‘situational’ category of behavior. Integrity is a constant. It is non-negotiable and immune to bribery or reward. Situational ethics is best summed up in an old Chicago political axiom—“if you accept the offer, it’s a reward. If you reject it, it’s a bribe.” A person with high integrity is rarely put in the position of having to accept or reject a shady offer. Still, if confronted with a questionable offer, they respond with the spontaneous right action—they reject it. Once you’ve rejected enough dubious offers, words gets around that your integrity is fixed and firm. Your reputation becomes both a sword and shield for dealing with the sly, the slick and the wicked.

Now, with your character and integrity firmly established, you are able to project an Authenticity that attracts people to you and that gives credence to your words. To be authentic is to be honest in thoughts, words and actions. In a word, to be authentic is to be genuine. Authentic leaders are dealers in truth. Sometimes, the truth is painful and, at other times, it is liberating. Yet, it is always a powerful communication tool. The truth minimizes complexity, eliminates needless drama, reduces cycle time and creates a culture of openness. If the leader can speak the truth, everyone in the organization is empowered to speak the truth. In other words, sales forecasts can be truthful, missed opportunities can be admitted and constructive criticism can be shared. If the leader lies to the shareholders and stakeholders about company performance, the employees will lie to the leader about his/her performance. Duplicity breeds duplicity. Authenticity breeds authenticity. Out of authenticity comes trust.

Trust is what we feel and accept about another’s real intention. Without trust there can be no peace or progress. Trust requires that we accept, unconditionally, that a person or group’s actions and intentions are honorable and supportive of our goals and actions. For one human to trust another human, one must be willing to believe that their interests are held harmless and will not be subject to trickery or be undermined. Trust is the byproduct of high character, integrity and authenticity. An untrustworthy person cannot trust another person. Untrustworthy means there is always that doubt, that question and that concern about another person’s motive. Most untrustworthy people see trusting people as naïve and gullible. They pretend to be trustworthy only to gain an advantage. Trust is a tool of deception for them. Yet, in spite of their skill at acting to gain the confidence of others, they are incapable of respecting those they dupe. Their reasoning is simple. They feel as though they are transparent and those who can’t see through them are slow and deserving of being exploited. In other words, they don’t trust themselves and are astounded when others trust them. Leaders who practice building ‘false trust’ are inevitably found out.

Trusted Leaders are static free, fair and even handed, comfortable in the own skins and clear (no BS) communicators, while always being truthful when speaking or writing. As former Presidential Press Secretary, Ari Fleischer once said, “Everything truthful need not be said. But everything said must be truthful.”