How To Efficiently Lead A Team: Leadership Lessons From Dr. John Kotter with Tom Flick

When you want to be a good leader yourself, nothing beats learning from the best. Dr. Diane Hamilton interviews former Pac-10 Conference Player of the Year and an NFL quarterback for seven seasons, Tom Flick, on the lessons he learned from the authority on leadership and change, Dr. John Kotter. Tom narrates how he met Dr. Kotter and shares the amazing leadership lessons he learned from him – from differentiating management and leadership through sports to teaching others how to lead and overcome the challenges that come with it. He also offers his advice for other consultants who aim at helping leaders succeed in a high-level organization. On the side, Tom talks about Greenleaf’s servant leadership and its difference to other leadership styles.

TTL 601 | Leadership Lessons


Tom Flick is here. Tom is a former Pac-10 Conference Player of the Year and an NFL quarterback for seven seasons. Since he’s retired from the NFL in 1989, he’s now delivered over 3,000 presentations. He’s one of the biggest speakers out there. He’s fascinating in the area of leadership and he’s worked with Harvard professor, Dr. John Kotter.

Listen to the podcast here

How To Efficiently Lead A Team: Leadership Lessons From Dr. John Kotter with Tom Flick

I am here with Tom Flick. He is a dynamic and highly sought-after speaker in leadership. He has delivered more than 3,000 presentations to a who’s who list of clients including Microsoft, Starbucks, Google, Boeing, American Express, Amazon, NASA, Ritz Carlton and the Pentagon. He is fascinating and the work he does, I know he’s done a lot of work with Dr. John Kotter, who was a guest to the show and somebody who I’ve probably seen in every single course I’ve taught in leadership in my life. I’m interested to talk to you Tom.

Diane, thank you. It’s a pleasure to be with you.

Let’s get a little background on you. Former NFL quarterback, let’s start with some of that and how you got into meeting Dr. Kotter and what you do now.

I’m one of seven kids and I grew up in a sports-oriented family. I liked the ball that wasn’t round and had the desire to play in the National Football League as a young boy and achieve that dream. When I finished, I was invited to speak. I’m a quiet guy. I would express my personality on a football field or basketball court or baseball diamond. I rebut that and said, “No, thank you but thanks anyway.” People kept asking and when I was in the NFL, I did take a couple of talks or speeches on the differences or similarities of playing quarterback and leadership in business world. That prompted these calls after I retired. I stepped out and jumped right in with both feet and the doors swung wide open. I’ve been doing this for almost 30 years.

I came across Dr. Kotter through my business partner who contacted us and contacted Dennis, who does the long-term stuff with clients. I would be more of the kick-off person. I do the keynote of the half day or the one day. He invited Dennis to come back and talk about our work and he says, “You’re doing what I write about.” That conversation started Kotter International. Some of the questions, you’ll probably notice me parroting a lot of John’s work. I think Dr. Kotter’s a brilliant man and he cracked the shell on what it means to be a leader and changes done to leadership.

A lot of what I’ve learned from his work and others has led to my interest in some of the things I work on in terms of curiosity, my book on curiosity, and I would study that. There’s so much to leadership, what makes somebody successful. You’ve become a highly sought-after leadership speaker. What did you learn from being in sports? I grew up in a super competitive family. Everything was sport so we had to bet on everything. I wonder how that impacted how you view leadership.

Athletics is one of the best ways to learn about leadership. If you’re in the military or play some athletic sport, you’ve got a jump on folks because you’re forced to be in those positions and you’re forced to also be a good follower, which is another big part of leadership. What’s considered the toughest position in any sport is playing the position of quarterback formulated a lot of those things in my mind. Even from a young age, it was fascinating that I could get inside of a huddle, and I have ten sets of eyes looking at me and they’re asking two things, “Tom, please lead me,” or “Please inspire me.” That’s what every single time you get in the huddle. That’s what people are seeking and find out where we’re going and can help us get there. What I loved about sports is not necessarily for a touchdown but driving ten other guys with you down the field against difficult odds in crossing the end zone. Leadership is an interesting aspect but if you look in Dr. Kotter’s research, we’re more of a managerial society than we are leadership society. That’s the big problem we face here.

Leadership is about seeking opportunities; management is about avoiding hazards. Click To Tweet

When I got my degree, you didn’t even hear the word leadership then. Everything was management. I teach a lot of courses where we talk about the difference between leadership and management. How do you see the difference?

It’s huge. With John’s research, it’s indicated that we’re over management led by a factor four to one. If you look at all the higher education institutions here and in Europe, it’s predominantly geared towards management. We’ve taken intelligent men and women and taught them to be managers. It’s a challenge. Leadership’s like an offense, management’s playing defense. Leadership is seeking opportunities, management is about avoiding hazards. Leadership is about what and why, management is about who and how. Leadership is a want-to and management is a have-to. Leadership takes you to where you want to go, management is what you know, it’s a repetitive thing. Leadership is about creating change, management is about simplifying the complexity. Leadership is fast, management is status quo, reliable and efficient. That’s what it does.

Before we had an entrepreneur, leader, innovator created a company and that company will produce a product or service. Once it became successful, we needed managers to run it. That’s where we got all these people educated in management. The problem is the fact that the world’s moving fast. We’re changing quickly. It’s change, change, take a breath and then change again. No longer can one charismatic leader lead the change alone or one senior leadership team lead the change alone, that’s impossible to do. With the change happening fast, we need to drive leadership down into middle. I like to say that we lead from the middle. If you can get organizations to lead to them from the middle and expand the leadership ability throughout the organization, you have a better chance to stave off or at least understand change. It’s terrible. If you need to go 80 miles per hour but you’re stuck at going 50 miles per hour, that’s what we are mostly doing with the lack of leadership.

I get a lot of receptivity when I talk about curiosity because everybody is trying to deal with cultural issues. You talk about change, everybody’s worried about innovation and being relevant and all the things they’re doing. We keep hearing that if the leader doesn’t buy in from the top, if the CEO doesn’t think that there is any problem with culture, you have a hard time changing it. Do you think that if you’re middle heavy instead of top heavy that we have a better chance with the culture in the organization?

It’s stems from great leadership at the top, it always will and is a necessity for having successful change take place or understanding change. If you think about these amazing sets of actions and behaviors, management and leadership, management has given us the modern day corporation. It’s about duty, staffing, controlling and problem-solving. In essence, Henry Ford perfected management. It’s given us our companies, our organizations. It’s developed capitalism. Leadership is different. It’s about creating vision and strategy. It’s communicating your vision and strategy. Its motivating action that’s getting buy in, removing barriers, inspiring people, taking complex systems in people in creating innovation, opportunities and growth where management is taking complex systems in people and making them run like they’re intended to run, hour after hour, day after day efficiently and effectively. They’re two amazing sets of actions and behaviors. The problem is we’re emphasized in the management and I find that the leaders are managing it. What I mean by that is when I’m talking to senior leaders, they’ll use words like control instead of align. With difference, words mean something. We have leaders at the top that aren’t getting the message driven down to the organization simply because they’re managing when they should be leading.

How much does charisma play? You mentioned charismatic leaders. In one course that I teach, one of the questions was list examples of charismatic leaders who’ve used it for good and for bad. You always hear Martin Luther King for good and Hitler for bad, those typical examples. How important do you think charisma is for leadership and can you develop it or is that natural?

if you need charisma to be a great leader, then no wonder we have few great leaders because it’s not a necessity, but it is an advantage if you have that. The number one leadership trait is humility. Someone who understands that they don’t have all the right answers even though they’re strong enough to be able to state what they believe and where we’re going. You’re the captain of the ship if you’re the leader of an organization. Your crew need to believe that you can get them to the destination but if you’re not willing to listen to some of the input along the way, then you’re going to have a crew that’s wary about where they’re going. Humility trumps about anything more than charisma but if you have charisma, it’s certainly an advantage.

TTL 601 | Leadership Lessons
Leadership Lessons: The number one leadership trait is humility, understanding that you don’t have all the right answers even though you’re strong enough to be able to state what you believe.


All that ties into trust. I’ve had some great people on the show, Keith Krach from DocuSign, high in humility. He surrounds himself with people who know more than he does. People like that, I think people are drawn to, but then we’ve seen success with people like Steve Jobs who wouldn’t be considered in that realm. How do you explain the success of Steve Jobs in terms of why would people want to work for him and what would you have fixed about him or do you think he was as he was?

I live in Redmond, Washington where Microsoft is from and there’s this story of Bill Gates who’s like Steve Jobs to his employees, tough guys. I don’t know if that applies much anymore now. You’re thinking back in the ‘80s when this is taking place. It’s the environment that we live in nowadays, people need to be aware of how we come across. My way or the highway may not work. It might in a startup but once you start getting more people on board and driving the vision out and the world starts to have a magnifying glass on who you are and how you lead them, that’s not going to fly as strongly as it did in the past.

It’s interesting to see the impact that some of those case studies have, what to do and what not to, what worked and what didn’t work. You do so much speaking and you have all these customers, I mentioned some of them, your clients. I have a lot of people who are trying to get clients at the level that you have. That’s tough to do. Any advice for people who are consultants and are trying to help leaders succeed in high level organizations?

When I stepped out in faith, “Lord, I’m game. Let’s go play. I’ll follow,” the main thing I find is a listening ear has been my biggest asset and not trying to be all things to all people is another thing. I like to build relationships. It’s important for me to sit and understand. I keynote whenever a client calls and if they want to come and speak, it’s all about them. It should be. I’m not trying to put my agenda over their organization or their plans so I’m open to what they want and what the problems are. That’s what I love about my work. I love understanding culture. I love understanding behavior, why did they get in this pickle, what are some of the challenges that they have, how do they get out of it, where do they want to go.

That’s the same as being a quarterback. That’s ingrained in me. You don’t treat everybody on your football team the same way. There might be lineman, you’d grab his facemask, shake him up, pull him down to your level and speak straight to him. There might be a receiver who has a fragile temperament and you’re going to be careful how you communicate to him even though he dropped the last three passes you threw to him. It’s varied on how you go about their business but listening, because then a client who has the sense that I’m being heard, people applied that last statement to any aspect of life. When people know that you’re listening, you care and they’ve been heard, then you can make progress.

When you’re talking about that, it reminds me of a company where we had to place our personality assessment results on the cubicles so everybody knew how to interact with us. You interact with people differently based on what you know about them and how they like to receive information. That’s a big part of emotional intelligence and empathy. When I’ve seen a lot of the research out there, we’re starting to see more that some CEOs have lower levels of emotional intelligence. What do you think is leading to that?

I don’t know, Diane. Are you saying what’s leading to less emotional intelligence?

The speed of the leader determines the rate of the pack. Click To Tweet

Yes, it’s hard to explain. Are we seeing that they’re spending more time on books and less time around people? I’m curious of why they’re struggling with emotional intelligence in the higher level.

I don’t know if I could answer the question or know the answer to the question. I think though that people who get to that point that don’t have a great deal of emotional intelligent have more in the academic side of things and they’ve never been forced or been coached. You know that when they reach to those levels, they spend thousands and thousands of dollars to getting these men and women coached on how to lead. It’s challenging, I find those who don’t have that type of emotional intelligence do have people around them that cover or fill-in the gaps, which is a smart CEO or a smart leader at that point. If you don’t have it, then find someone who does and get them on your team. That’s what I find many times when I see folks like that.

It was Rich Karlgaard’s, who’s been on the show, book on teams about sometimes you want to have complementary types, like Jobs had Wozniak. Do you see a lot of that with leaders that they have their COO or somebody next to him that has the things that they don’t have or do you find a lot more people that have it all within themselves?

I find the former, not the latter. I find that folks that understand good leadership understand that they’ve got gaps. There’s the humility aspect again coming back. With those gaps, you need people to fill them and they’re wise, smart and strong enough in their faith of their leadership that they realize that they don’t need to be worried or concerned that someone might have an answer when they don’t. That’s what we love about people when you don’t have the right answers sometimes and yet you’re willing to state it saying, “I don’t have the answer. I’ll go back and resource you.” What’s even better is when a leader makes a mistake and then comes out in front of everybody or in front of that person and says, “I’m sorry. I blew it. I was wrong. I misunderstood. I misjudged and I made a mistake.”

I’m finding that what people are afraid of, the people below these leadership teams, is the fact that it’s a risky proposition many times because as a leader, as a senior leader, you’re trying to be perfect. It’s risky for people to follow you but it’s a lot easier to follow someone who says, “I don’t have all the answers. I made a mistake. I blew it,” because it doesn’t lower your leadership quotient. It raises because people are looking more for someone who’s authentic, who’s real and who can relate. You can go further and farther with that type of personality than someone who’s a hard driver.

It’s interesting to me because I study perception, how people can relate to other people and how they say. “Perception is a reality.” We all live in our own little worlds and what you do is you help clients understand their issues. How do you go about that?

It shows a great to respect to the audience that you’ll be addressing, that you’ve taken the time to understand their pain, challenges, weaknesses, desires, hopes, where they want to go and what’s getting in the way. I’m a firm believer every time I communicate or create a talk, I first emphasize the challenge because it makes no sense to me to communicate a solution when we haven’t solved or at least identify the problem that’s preventing us from getting there in the first place. We need to that first and foremost. When you get on the phone and you’re in conference calls constantly with clients and you’re talking about the challenges, they feel like you got invested interest in what they’re trying to overcome because you’re taking enough time to learn about it instead bringing some agenda about, “We need to do these five steps or ten things.” When someone sitting in the audience and you can site multiple challenges that they go through on a daily basis or weekly basis or their counterpart or their teams, they feel “This guy’s invested in me.”

TTL 601 | Leadership Lessons
Leadership Lessons: Stories are sticky. After being told, it leaves an emotional residue that people can go back, relive, and re-communicate in their own way to somebody else.


I would tell clients when I first get on the phone is, “I don’t want to seem like an outsider. I want to seem like someone who’s in the organization that no one’s heard of or knows about, but I want to know your organization so well, your lexicons, the soul, the terminology, how you speak, how you move, how you think.” I put a lot of due diligence to do that. That way, whatever message you come up with, it’s one that’s communicated under great understanding and people respond to that. I’m a firm believer that you need to be able also to do one other thing and that is measure what you communicate. Otherwise, we’re wasting their time. You can do a simple test. You can teach people “We’re talking about these three things and these are the challenge.” Here’s what we want to walk away with. We want to walk away with different behaviors. How do we implement those behaviors? Before you start your meeting with your team, you can simply pull out a 3×5 card, put a line, then put a one and put a five or one and a ten. “Where are we on this subject matter that Tom talked about? What are we trying to accomplish? Are we there?” Give it a radian and you can collect those cards.

No one has to know who wrote what, but you can calculate the percentage of these things you’re going after and say, “We’re not getting 80%. We need to go back and freely understand what we’re missing. Where’s the missing part of this?” You can measure these things. In essence, that’s how I go about doing it and then I have follow-ups with clients. It’s important to follow with either a small, simple, video podcast that runs two, three minutes and reemphasizing some of the points that I talked about. John said this to Dr. Kotter. The challenge is that we under-communicate the vision by a factor of ten, if not 100. Let’s imagine the water that flows down the Mississippi is information that someone receives in their head, on their machines, in their phones, in the course of one year. You go to a conference, you have a big meeting and someone communicate the message or you as the leader, you’re trying to communicate a new vision, strategy and implementation of that, all the steps necessary involved and you go to a big conference.

You have your team there and you communicated. If you don’t continue communicating that message to ad nauseam, what I mean by that is every time you open a meeting, you talk about the vision. Every time you close it, you mention it. It could be on signature pickers, recording of your phone voicemail, the equivalency of taking a bath of water and dumping that into the Mississippi. It dissipates so quickly because the biggest challenge anyone has in a meeting, or could be a meeting with your team at your office, it could be a conference where I speak at, is the simple fact that we’re given permission in meetings to put all things aside, turn off our phones and think about possibilities. The challenges, we’re creatures of deeply ingrained habits and behaviors. Once that meeting’s over, we open the door, turn on our phones, go back to our computers and we’re pushed right back into the bowl that we started with. Leaders fail to realize how deeply entrenched we become in our comfort zones and that could be one of the biggest pullbacks and challenges that organizations face.

It’s a problem, status quo thinking. You talk about we get together, we’re allowed to ask questions, but a lot of people don’t ask questions. They buy into the way things have always been done or they’re afraid to ask questions. I deal a lot with that in my work with curiosity. I’m curious what are the challenges you see. You mentioned challenges to groups and they all relate, they understand that you’ve looked into them but what do you think are the challenges?

I think the biggest challenge is this leadership versus management distinction. If a leadership is the name of the game, unequivocally, it is. The second one, the speed of the leader determines the rate of the pack. How fast we move is important in the world. You can’t keep going 40 miles per hour when the required speed is 80 miles per hour. The other thing too, the challenge is we end up making our meetings, conferences, communication an intellectual exercise. What I mean by that as I’ve seen so many conferences, torpedoed by the CEO getting up and talking about ROI, metrics and analytics behind everything and it goes into this brain dump. You can see people turning off and tuning out. I’m a believer and this is how I strategize every time I communicate. I base things around the story.

A concept tied to a story with a takeaway because stories, long after, it doesn’t matter if people remember my name when I go speak to a group. What matters is the information that I’ve conveyed and the best way you can convey it is in stories. Stories are sticky, after I’m gone, someone can feel it or taste or there’s an emotional residue to it and they can go back and relive it. They can re-communicate it in their own way to somebody else. Stories are huge and I think we are too. I don’t want to use the robotic even though I did. We become so ordered in everything that we do that there’s no passion and excitement and emotions evolved about what we’re going after and what we’re trying to achieve.

We had a leader in a company I worked for and he would say value proposition every few minutes. After a while, it has no meaning. Sometimes they over say certain things. What you’re saying is important to do the storytelling aspect. That’s a hard thing for some people to learn. How did you learn to be such a good storyteller?

Diversity makes you great. In that process, learn, come together, bond, and become a real team. Click To Tweet

I started to pay attention, I’m a collector of stories. I’ve got an e-file that’s got hundreds and hundreds of stories. I’ve got folders with stories. When I find a story and love it, I keep it. I collect it. When I first started speaking, I had a communication guy, a dear friend of mine, Cameron spent the day with me and he said, “Let’s get a bunch of 3×5 cards and think about stories or experiences that you’ve had and put the title of it on one side of the card. On the backside, flip it over and give a quick synopsis of what that means and what might be the takeaway from it.” He gave me that as an exercise to do for a week and he came and we had all these 3×5 cards on a kitchen table. He said, “What are your favorites? What do you love? What do you like?” I start grabbing them and started to rehearse and then talk about them and share my heart over them. That led me into speaking.

That’s critically important, people being able to experience things and understand things because then I can relate to you and I can understand you. We all have something in common. It’s not six degrees to separation. It might be one. Diane, I wish I had the chance to meet you on a pre-call and love your personality, your energy. If we had a meeting together, we’d have something in common, maybe as an aging parent, maybe the child that struggles with some type of course or schooling or some issue. Whatever it is, we’re more alike than we are different. That’s the great thing about teams is you can bring people together and with a lot of diverse backgrounds. Diversity makes you great; and in that process, learn and come together and then bond together and become a real team.

The number one job of a quarterback, it’s focusing the energy of ten men about 65 times a game. You got ten men in a huddle and these guys are black and they’re white. They come from different socioeconomic background, belief systems and experiences but we wear the same-colored uniform. What they’re waiting for is the quarterback, a leader to step into the huddle and focus their energy to do one thing, and that is win the next play. That’s all it is. Great teams win one winning plan on top of another. Try and stack those winning plays and if you get more winning plays than the defense does, you typically end up winning the game. That’s what these are guys are asking. They’re asking, “Focus my energy.” The question is rhetorical, how do you get people to focus their energy? How do you do that as a leader? How do you focus people’s energy? You do that by communicating the vision, by being authentic, by being real, by being humble, by being clearly sure about where you’re going but also with that door that’s always open saying, “This is your CEO and Mrs. CEO. I think we can adjust our course slightly to get there even faster.” Be willing to listen to that. I think that’s what leadership is about.

A lot of people are interested in your background as a quarterback so I’m glad you brought that up because you’ve won Player of the Year and you’ve done these amazing things. I’m sure a lot of people are interested in how you even got into wanting to do this after doing that. It seems so different. What was your drive in football to begin with> How did you make that transition other than running into meeting Dr. Kotter and all that?

I love sports. That’s the one place I could be as a young boy. I’m one of seven children. My father was a Naval Aviator and a great man and my mom’s also a great mom. He called me Silent Sam, I didn’t ever speak. I would be quiet and I would sit in the back of the room and not wanting engagement but in sports, I did. I came alive when there was a baseball bat or basketball hanging around. I loved it. That’s something that’s inside of me. You mentioned a list about how you behave. It’s StrengthsFinder about how people behave. I’ve had my StrengthsFinder, I’m an achiever, number one. I’ve got to keep moving and it’s the way God wired me. I’ve got into it because I love leadership. I love leading people and leadership meant sitting with guys after practice and be hanging out with them. It would be getting to know them and leadership is different. You ask a bunch of people why are they leader, what they know about leadership, what they’ll typically tell you is, “My coach led, my mom led, my dad led or my first boss led.”

They’ve never dove in to leadership and try to understand what it means. We could have a talk about leadership, it goes on forever. I think it’s never ending but leadership is a human side of life. It is this aspect of caring deeply for people. We all have a legitimate use of power, blessing and influence in people’s lives. The question that I ask folks lots of times is what kind of leadership do you respond to best? It’s a great question, a legitimate question. Why should you follow me instead of somebody else? Why me, not another? That’s important and so there are all these different aspects and Greenleaf was a big influence in my life, Servant Leadership. With that in mind, in athletics and the love of leadership, lastly, the calling of God in my heart, said, “I allowed you to play football so you could go do this real thing in life which is help people understand leadership and become better leaders.” I push back at that and then relented after a couple months of prayer and said, “Okay, I’ll go forward.” That’s when the doors swung open.

Greenleaf’s servant leadership is an important topic in a lot of the courses I teach. It’s an inverse pyramid. You’re supporting people above you even though you were at the top. You’re at the bottom holding people up instead of the other way around making them do things for you. I’m trying to think of the better way of putting it. How would you describe servant leadership other than that?

TTL 601 | Leadership Lessons
Leadership Lessons: Complacency is a feeling in the heart more than the thought in the brain that says what you are doing is fine.


It’s an inverted pyramid. The higher you go up, the more people you come underneath to support. I had a great experience when I was drafted by the National Football League. Joe Gibbs of the Washington Redskins drafted me. He epitomized one of Greenleaf’s major points. One of the things that Greenleaf talked about is a servant leader is not only a good listener. We touched on that, but they also accept those who follow him or her. Greenleaf said that, “I’ll take what you give and that will be enough for now.” I’ve got this group of people, this is the group that I’ve been dealt. Joe Gibbs had that same experience when I was drafted and we’re going to make it work with these group of people. We don’t sit and worry about, “I don’t have this, I don’t have that. I’ve got this particular group of people.” That’s how Greenleaf points out, “Don’t make excuses. Don’t wish you had something else. Work with the people that are there.” I see that as a big aspect of Greenleaf. It’s hard to conceptualize or put it in the capsule what Greenleaf’s all about but those of you who are interested, servant leadership is a benchmark book because it goes for leadership in our world. I think it’s so applicable.

It’s something we talked about in a lot of the courses I teach. When you’re talking about this, I was thinking about the football aspect. Adam Alter was on my show. He wrote the book Drunk Tank Pink. We’re talking about how they used to paint the locker rooms pink to psychologically mess with the opposing team in football. Were you around when that was happening? I was curious what psychological leadership things did they play on you guys in sports?

When I played, it was void. It was still the old stuff. I love to play for a guy like Pete Carroll now who jokes around and has a lot of fun, but it was pretty serious back in those days. It was a tougher environment and old ways were still involved, hazing and some crazy things like that. They’re certainly not servant leadership until Gibbs showed up. Gibbs made the game fun. He made it energetic. What he did though is he brought a bunch of guys together to create a fellowship. We’ve learned to like each other. We liked being around each other. That wasn’t the case in some of the other teams I played on. When I was traded from the Redskins to the New England Patriots, it was cliquish, a lot of selective participants. What I mean by that is we’d have guys on the team that would hustle and the next they knew, it’s their play that was play being called then they get the ball thrown to them but if it wasn’t, they would loaf. They’d criticize quickly, make excuses often.

For Greenleaf, it’s not about that. It was more of coercive side of leadership when I played, excluding Coach Gibbs. It’s more servant. Back then, domination was the approach. Greenleaf is persuasion. Back then it was manipulation. Greenleaf is more modelling. It was humiliation back then, it’s more patience. What happened back in the old days, it was my way or the highway. Leadership was taken away from you as a person. Another rhetorical question, you’ve ever been around people who do an assignment and they stand there waiting, “What’s the next assignment?” They’re probably typically under a coercive leader because they’re afraid to do anything. They’re afraid to go out and see something that needs to be done and go do it. They’re waiting to be told that it’s okay to go do it. Servant leadership is the opposite response if leadership is given away. You’re allowed to build autonomy. You’re allowed to go lead and see what needs to be done and take initiative to go do it. I think in a world that’s moving very fast, that’s what’s necessary now.

Every organization’s a social experiment and it sells what is acceptable, what is not acceptable. When I talk, I often refer to that thought experiment where they rang a bell and the woman was at the doctor’s office. She didn’t know everybody around her were actors and every time the bell would ring, everybody would stand up and sit down. She would do the same thing eventually because everybody else is doing it. We see a lot of that in the workplace. It’s a frightening thing that people are afraid to go against the status quo thinking and I don’t think leaders necessarily even recognize that. I’m always surprised because even when I wrote my dissertation, I thought, “That’s a cool subject.” I didn’t expect it to still be so huge now. People still need to work on so much. You think about how much has been written on communication issues, soft skills, emotional intelligence, all the different things, why aren’t we getting better? Why isn’t it making more of a dent?

One of the things could be, again, Dr. Kotter did 40 years of research and he found the number one challenge in an organization’s face is this thing called complacency. To describe complacency is they’re sleepy, steadfast contented with the status quo. This applies to sales people, managers, frontline employees, upper management, complacency. Complacency is not malicious, not intentional and has nothing to do with laziness. It’s a feeling in the heart more than the thought in the brain. It’s a feeling in the heart that says, “What I’m doing is fine.” It’s based on past success or anecdotal success, even historical success. I remember sitting in a Microsoft meeting, I was ready to present to a team and the guy got up. He says, “We’re Microsoft, we’re the gorilla on the hill. No one’s ever going to lose a job here at Microsoft.” That changed coming towards the end. They started to let people off in Microsoft in a small period of having a dip.

Complacency is a scary thing and I’ve gone into senior leadership meetings before and sat in meetings and any time a customer issue arises, you’ll find people who batter around like a volleyball. They’ll touch on or make a comment about it but they’re quick to get off it and talk about something great that they’ve done. It’s a phenomenon that has been uncovered by Dr. Kotter’s research. Complacency is the big challenge. If you’re talking to someone who’s complacent, you try and hit him with cold, hard facts. You’re explaining why they’re complacent. What they’re doing is they’re nodding with intellectual ascent. They’re listening to you but in their head, they’re saying, “I’m not complacent, you are,” or “That department is over there.”

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It’s a phenomenon that’s incredible. Who can be complacent, Diane? I can be, you can be, the teams can be and CEOs can be. Complacency is a big challenge. What I don’t see often is senior leaders in a boardroom who stand like a general and they’re barking out orders about how to plank the enemies and set out reconnaissance and setup night patrols and so forth. I see where you walk in the boardrooms, wool carpeting and oil paintings on the wall and reeks success. I think people live in that environment often that they think or realize, and I think that’s the biggest challenge when you go into an organization, it could be a sales group, it can be a management team, but complacency is the big number one for Dr. Kotter.

It reminds me of being raised by competitive sports family like you. I think of all the people I’ve interviewed who’s starting to do more gamification to sell things, to get people more involved in things, when you have a team atmosphere, you don’t want competition amongst team members. You want people working together. Do we want competition in the workplace? Is that a solution to make things more gamified for younger generations? What’s the solution for all this?

Competition’s an interesting thing. Sometimes it’s a scary word but I think competition is a healthy thing if it’s healthy competition. If you’re pitting one group against the other, it’s got to be for the team. It’s got to be for a higher calling involved for everybody that’s participating in this endeavor. We’ve got to be able to go after something together. That’s the key. Trust is a huge factor in that process of working together and going after something. Competition can be the emphasis behind that, the thrust behind it. Competing to get there first and hustling to do so but there are lots of ways that can end up stepping on your toe or creating more of a challenge if it’s not done well. We need to make sure the teams are put together properly. The other work I do is putting teams together. Because you’re assigned to a group of people doesn’t mean that you’re certainly not a team that functions well.

I figured out there are only four types of teams in all those sports that I played. The first is team in name only. Those are the people who writes your checks. Then there are good teams, great teams and there’s what we call few teams. The way that you move from team a name only to become a legacy team is by creating more committed people on the team. When you get to a certain tipping point, then it falls over into this category of legacy team. I played 22 years of organized sports. I’ve played on only one legacy team. My senior year in college at the University of Washington, we won the Pac-10 Championship, went to the Rose Bowl, beat USC in the Coliseum who was ranked number one and had Marcus Allen in the back, the Heisman Trophy winner. We had no superstars on our team. We loved each other and we were all going after the same thing and we all sacrificed for the same reason. It was a compelling experience but teams in the business environment want to be set for that and there are a lot of improvements that could be made in that area.

Amy Edmondson was on my show and she has a great TED Talk on teams versus teaming and some of the things that they’re able to do to get the Chilean miners out from under all that rock at that time, how people could come together in these unusual situations. It’s interesting we can’t create more of that thought on a day-to-day team situation where people are working together more continuously. There’s not that sense of urgency.

It’s laying the foundation again. People give lots of different answers about leadership. It’s the ones that they grew up with that are embedded with. Teams are the same way. There are certain rules for building the team. One is you don’t leave in building the team the chance and the reason why you don’t do that is because the team will form with or without you. If it’s not with you, it’s not going to be a team that you won and they’re hard to disband. You can’t build a team unless you have buy-in because people create a team without you. They’ll have their own sense of reason why they’re there and what the purpose is. You’ve got to be able to look each team member in the eye and tell them the truth. That needs to be established upfront and foremost. You have to be intentional in everything that you do when you build a team. I think the other thing too that we missed is you have to love the experience of being on a team whether you win or lose. That’s what I loved about my coaches many times. When we lost, they’re right there. I played for some other coaches that when we won, it was a great team effort. When we lost, “You guys played poorly.”

A few other things on my team list is core covenants. Those are the guiding principles that reflect the integrity, the work habits and the team first attitude. They’re the compass of the team, as the North Star so to speak. I had a coach one time tell me, “Don’t have rules when you build a team at standards. Rules get tested, people rise to standards.” I found that was true. The last two is all roles are honored as equal. That’s so important. I play the position of quarterback. I was written up in the paper if I played well and if I didn’t, I got hammered. When I played well, there are ten other guys that are doing their job well that allow me to throw a pass and complete it. All roles need to be honored as equal. The one I started with is the bedrock. You don’t build a team around talent, you build a team around the committed. Dennis shared a story with me. He headed to Texas with a client. He was going to put together a team and that’s what Dennis did. He did a three-day team building thing and he came back shortly after he left for Dallas. I said, “Why are you back?” He said, “I’m not doing it.”

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I told the CEO I did a SWOT analysis. This one VP kept popping up in all the interviews that I was doing and I said, “This is not going to work. It’s a waste of time and money. I’m going to head home. When you take care of this problem, I’ll come back and build your team for you.” The guy found out and he answered Dennis’ advice saying, “What do you think I should do?” Dennis said, “If you’re asking me, I would get rid of him.” “The guy brings in 70% of our business. He’s a real mover and shaker,” and Dennis said, “You’re never going to achieve the type of team you want with this guy in place.” Eventually, the guy was let go. Dennis came back and put the team together and the CEO’s response months later was, “We are doing far above and beyond what we ever thought capable.” The one guy that was doing a lot of the work was hindering everyone else from reaching their potential and the team forming. It happens like that more often than not. Unfortunately, that doesn’t need to be the case though.

That’s a hard message to deliver. You said Dennis delivered that, to get rid of the guy that’s giving 70% of your income? What if you’re wrong? That’s the thing with coaching and when you’re a consultant. You have to trust your consultant and whoever’s giving you that information. If you’re working with somebody at Kotter International, they’ve got quite the background to back that up. I think that some of the people who do what we do would not feel comfortable delivering that message. That’s a big pill to swallow.

It is and you need to know what you’re talking about. You know how you got to that information that you’re now sharing with the CEO and it’s got to be reliable. It’s difficult. Not everyone can do it. You could’ve been a teacher, friend, mentor, brother, sister, someone that you’re in business with right now that has been that type of a mentor, that type of someone who’s spoken into your head and your heart and said, “You can do this. You can trust me and believe me,” and Dennis was that way to me. Dennis is that way to John Kotter. That’s why Kotter International has started. I’ve had some wonderful coaches my entire life. That’s been the biggest blessing I think I can have.

You’ve had quite a background with everything you’ve done. I’m curious if you have any audacious goal at this point. Do you want to own a team or do you want to continue doing this? What’s next?

It’s still serving people. It’s the calling that started years ago. It’s the most noble. I did the taking care of in the sense of satisfaction and doing this work. A lot of guys that leave NFL miss the excitement. It’s hard to replace running out on the field with 70,000 people on the stands. Doing this is more deeply satisfying. It’s serving people and I’m happy to do it.

This has been a great opportunity to get to know so much of what you do and how you can help so many people with all this information. I was looking forward to having you on the show and I think a lot of people want to know how they can find out more about your work or how to follow you. Do you have any sites or links or anything you want to share?

I do have one. It’s a website. It’s pretty easy to follow. It’s simply my name, You can find information about my work and the talks that I give there. Dr. Kotter’s information is on there as well and I’d be more than happy and honored to serve anybody in your clients or audience in any way, shape and form. It’s been a pleasure for me, Diane. It’s been so much fun talking to you and I’m so thankful to be here with you.

Thank you, I enjoyed it. I hope everybody takes some time to check out your site and there’s so much great information. I’m looking forward to following what you guys continue to do because Dr. Kotter was great on the show and all the work that you guys do is amazing. Thank you.

I’d like to thank Tom for being my guest. We get so many great guests on the show. If you’ve missed any past guest, you can go to If you’re looking for more information on Cracking the Curiosity Code book or the Curiosity Code Index assessment, they’re all available on that site as well or you can go to to get directly to it. We’re offering certification courses now to help people become certified to give it. If you’re a leadership consultant or an HR professional and you want to give the Curiosity Code Index to your organization, you can become certified and get five hours of free certification credit from SHRM. That’s an option in helping people to develop their levels of curiosity because if you can develop curiosity, it leads to improve innovation, engagement, productivity and everybody wins in that case. I enjoyed this episode. Tom’s such a nice guy and he was so interesting. I loved all the stories so I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did. I hope you join in the next episode of Take the Lead Radio.

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About Tom Flick

TTL 601 | Leadership LessonsA dynamic and highly sought-after speaker, leadership expert Tom Flick has delivered over 3,000 presentations to a “who’s-who” list of clients that includes Microsoft, Starbucks, Google, Boeing, American Express, Amazon, NASA, Ritz-Carlton Hotels and the Pentagon. Mr. Flick addresses more than 100,000 men and women each year and has garnered a reputation around the world as an authority on leadership, helping organizations develop leaders, lead change effectively and increase teamwork and organizational performance.

Mr. Flick’s passion for raising more effective leaders is achieved by his unique gift to connect with the listener’s heart as well as their head. Understanding that people, not programs, help organizations change and grow. He draws on his leadership experience as a former NFL quarterback for seven seasons, his association with Dr. John Kotter and his extensive work in corporate America, to provide actionable solutions around developing leaders and leading the change process.


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