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June 07, 2004
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The H.R. Doctor Is In
The Agonies and the Ecstasies of Public Service

ImageMoving successfully and joyfully through life involves three major dimensions - personal, family and community. Without paying attention to all three, and without taking deliberate steps to nurture and protect each of them, any human being will lose a sense of balance and will ultimately be unhappy, die prematurely and live unfulfilled.

Even if a person, such as an elected official, is eminently successful in one of the three dimensions, for example, community service, but is unsuccessful or miserable in terms of self respect, or appreciation of family, that person will generally not be one you want your son or daughter to date, marry or grow old with. Nor would you want that person watching your pets while you are away.

After 30 years in the "people" business, working with thousands of elected and appointed officials, 150 published articles, and speaking and teaching opportunities around the country, the HR Doctor has seen 10 principles surface over and over again in different settings and with widely diverse people. Pay attention to these 10 principles, apply them to the dimensions of self, family and community, and watch what happens to your life.

The first is borrowed directly from the "personal protection" or security business. This is the business of the Secret Service or the British Royalty and Diplomatic Protection Service. It is the fundamental principle of "avoiding action at the scene." In other words, take reasonable precautions in the way you live your life, and the way you interact with others to prevent trouble from happening in the first place.

At the physical level, this means something as simple as always using your seat belt, always wearing your helmet if you ride a motorcycle, or not driving when you are impaired. It means not keeping a loaded firearm in your house.

It also has another personal dimension – "avoiding action at the scene" in your own body.

Pay attention to your health. If you smoke, stop it! If you haven’t seen a doctor for a major health "baseline checkup," make the appointment today Ð no, don’t put it off until tomorrow – do it today. If you are terribly overweight, take steps to reduce the many risks obesity brings for your own health.

Avoiding action at the scene certainly means doing your daily work and activities so that other people are inspired and pleased with the results whenever possible. In effect, by avoiding action at the scene, you also achieve a second personal-protection objective: "Putting off the day when something bad happens."

The second and third powerful principles for success are first cousins to one another. They involve "anomalies" – things which produce unexpected outcomes, things which are not supposed to happen, or things that are surprising to you.

We all have a sixth sensory organ in our body, generally located just below the stomach. It starts thumping or pulsing when something dangerous or seriously wrong is about to happen. Try yours out by a visit in the dark of night to a walk-up ATM machine. See what happens when you hear a footstep behind you.

In effect, the sixth sense is the "anomaly detector." When something doesn’t come out the way we thought it would, there is a message for us in the unexpected outcome. The message can be a very positive one, or negative and dangerous.

On the positive side, we must stop and remember that the real way we make progress in science, in art, or in society is often by trying something, failing in the effort, and then looking at the result to try again in ways which take advantage of what we learned the first time. In other words, failure is a better teacher than success!

The third and perhaps the most powerful lesson of all is the importance of how you react when something is not right. The HR Doctor strongly recommends that you have the phrase "Don’t Walk by Something Wrong!" tattooed to the inside of your eyelids. That way, every time you close your eyes for a good night sleep or an instant blink you will see that message repeating itself. Whether personally, in our families, or in our communities, perhaps the biggest mistakes we make is seeing something that we could improve, something terrible, something wasteful or something tragic and then walking on by without stopping and helping to create a solution. Don’t be a walking by person in distress. Be a positive intervener to help improve a tough situation or problem.

One of the HR Doctor’s favorite principles for success is summarized best by the phrase "Don’t Postpone Joy." Live as though today may be your very last day on this earth. How often do we wish we could have taken our now deceased mom or dad out to dinner while they were alive, but we just never did? We were just too busy with what we thought were important meetings, chores at home, or the latest episode of "World Wrestling." Unfortunately, for many people it’s too late to turn back the clock.

What you can do is find joy and seize the opportunity to experience it personally, and to share it. Whether it is an unexpected pleasant surprise for your staff members, such as taking them all to lunch, celebrating a graduation, a service anniversary, or something on a smaller scale, such as putting down the chores long enough to go on a walk with your child, or handing a surprise bouquet of flowers to your spouse. If we don’t seize the opportunity to surgically implant joy into our day-to-day life, we will wake up moments after we are dead and realize how much our lives were cluttered in lost opportunities. That need never be the case with you Ð especially after reading this article and remaining awake while doing it!

The great contribution to this article by Isaac Newton in the 17th century was to articulate the "laws of motion" for public administrators as well as physicists. We need to remember the first law of motion in Newtonian physics – the law of inertia "a body at rest will tend to remain at rest unless acted on by an outside force."

Bureaucracy is full of inertia. In fact, it was designed in the first place to create a world of rules and regulations, of safeguards and protections, of entitlements and rights. The U.S. Constitution was designed deliberately to be full of checks and balances so that no one person nor group could trample over the rights of other people in a representative democracy. Now, as we fast forward over 200 years later, we realize how successful, overly successful, we were at applying Newton’s first law.

It is innovation which brings progress - innovation often learned from failed initial efforts. It is innovation that turns deserts to vineyards and can harness technology for good. Yet inertia’s main ally is the laziness that infects us when we are too worried about taking a reasonable risk – so we take none.

Elected officials can do considerable damage when they forget they were elected, among other things, to bring about positive change. Positive change won’t happen easily and it won’t happen if our thinking and acting is retarded by the worries that we can never change a system, and that some things "always stay the same." Anyone who feels that way should immediately step back and listen to a rebroadcast of the "I had a dream speech" by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., or should consider the contribution made by Nelson Mandela in changing a evil system many thought could not be changed.

In all three dimensions of family, community and individual, inertia is among our very worst enemies. It prevents you from getting on with finally going back to school to get the college degree you never had. It prevents you from taking the risk of running for office in the first place or trying to make a better community by supporting what some would regard as an unpopular position.

Learn to recognize when you are spending too much of your life counting paper clips. By paying attention to the infection caused by inertia, we stand a better chance of overcoming its effects. The answer to inertia is a deliberate search for innovation.

Two more principles are closely related, one involves teaching and learning. "Find Thyself a Teacher." Always strive to learn new skills, whether the skill is a desire to learn to tap dance, play the trumpet, or speak Spanish, it doesn’t matter. This would be a good time in your life, no matter what time it is, to learn and apply a new skill.

This learning principle’s first cousin is the joy of being a "Renaissance person." A person of diverse interests and knowledge is not only a great dinner companion, but a person who will contribute to a better society in many amazing ways. Learning new skills is as easy as finding a teacher and owning up to the fact that you have always wanted to learn to play the clarinet and asking someone to teach you how.

The genetic clone of the "Find Thyself a Teacher" principle is the idea of being a teacher. Don’t waste your knowledge by not sharing it with others. Be a mentor. Yes, it takes some time. Yes, you have many other appointments and things to do, but coming up with those excuses all the time begins approaching the unfortunate habit we have developed to an expert level in the United States - whining.

The two words, "thank" and "you" are not used enough in our world.
Take deliberate action to use those words regularly.

In a world where tens of thousands of children lack one or both parents, go out and be a mentor or a Big Brother or a Big Sister. Host an exchange student from another part of the world. What a great way to make a positive difference. Do it right in your office by teaching or sharing your experience, including your failures, with the staff around you. Be a zealot for staff development and set a clear standard of expectation that others in the organization will follow in their own daily living and working.

Alfredo Pareto, a 19th century economist, articulated an extraordinarily amazing principle we have come to know as the "80/20 Rule" or the "Rule of the Vital Few." Learn to harness this amazing principle. Most things in life are trivial; few things in life are vital. People that can identify the vital in their lives and focus energy on enhancing those elements of day-to-day living will be successful and happy.

Those who are mired in minutia and play Trivial Pursuit¨ with the precious hours of their lives will be missing out on so much. They may not even realize it until it is too late. Pareto’s principle is a powerful lesson for every one of us if only we would take the time to "hear" the message and act on it.

The two words, "thank" and "you" are not used enough in our world. Take deliberate action to use those words regularly. Find ways to thank people you care about including the people you work with. Appreciate, recognize and honor their achievements. That is a far more important activity for a supervisor or executive than jumping right in and attacking colleagues when they make mistakes.

Finally, perhaps the most important single principle that can guide your success as an elected or appointed official goes to the heart of a dangerous tendency in our country Ñ our tendency to whine excessively, to complain and the blame others.

This whining behavior is especially unfortunate considering how much we have in terms of wealth and opportunity. Don’t become a perennial guest on the Jerry Springer Show! The great principle here is to not fall victim to arrogant pride - what the Greeks call "hubris." Arrogance is the greatest danger of all - our "public enemy number one" and personal enemy number one. It hurts us as individuals and it hurts us as a community, as parents, and as a country.

Hubris turns great opportunity into failure because arrogance leads to a feeling of complacency and defensiveness when it comes to innovation and change.

These 10 powerful principles in this article are offered to you as a gift. However, the HR Doctor does not operate an after-sale "returns window". Don’t give them back to me. Think long and hard about them. Think about them on a long walk with some person or canine, like Kamala, "the HR dog" whose company you enjoy. Then share them with others. Any questions? Of course there are!

Don’t hesitate to visit to read scores and scores of HR Doctor Articles, which will not only cure insomnia, but may also help in your career and in your life.

All the best,
Phil Rosenberg
The HR Doctor


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