Caterpillars and Butterflies

I’d rather be surrounded by a room full of butterflies than a box full of caterpillars.


The second half of my personal mission is to help people achieve their God-given potential.  We recently capped off the Monarch Butterfly migration.  The beauty of thousands of these creatures hang from trees like leaves is a sight to behold.  And to think, all this beauty comes from a worm like creature called a caterpillar hanging from a tree.

People are not unlike caterpillars in this regard.  Caterpillars have potential to become beautiful butterflies.  However, this potential is not realized by every caterpillar.  Some get stuck in the wrong environment; some are devoured by predators, and I suppose some get plucked from their cocoon at the wrong time.  I believe that people, like caterpillars have untapped potential, but not everyone realizes theirs.  And, like caterpillars, I suppose there are a lot of reasons for this.

I could go into many reasons people get stuck in downward spirals or stagnant states, but I can also share numerous stories of resilience that demonstrate that it is not the circumstances, negative life scripts, or even the intentions of abusive predators that determine the outcome of a person’s life. Like caterpillars, resilient people continue to shed the old and reinvent themselves on their journey to flight.

One of the greatest privileges of leadership is helping those you lead achieve their potential.  Here are a few things you might consider as you turn your team into a room full of butterflies.

Look for the butterfly within everyone you lead, then find ways to unleash them to fly.

Begin by seeing their potential, even if they don’t quite see it themselves.  Nearly every successful person I know can tell stories where those leading them encouraged them to rise to challenges beyond what they believed they were capable of at the time.  That encouragement created focus, determination and motivation to give their best, and ultimately to achieve more than they dreamed possible.

Look for the butterfly even within those where it is not so evident.

Some people come to you so beaten and broken by previous experiences that they seem to have lost their motivation, drive and commitment to achieve their potential.  Their wings may not have completely withered, but you can tell that they are not far from the heap of cynical “has beens”.  If you have the time and resources, you may be able to reenergize them again, and in doing so, you may actually see the unfolding of one of the best employees you have ever had.

Consider Jim.  Jim was brilliant in his chosen field.  He was thought of as a subject matter expert and looked to as a problem solver in his area of expertise.  When a senior position opened up he was enraged that he was not selected for the role to which he felt entitled.  He had the credentials.  He had the education.  He had the required expertise.  He had the years of experience.  He looked right on paper.  However, he had not exhibited the kind of leadership his organization required for him to lead a team effectively.  After his exhibited outrage, it would have been easy and justifiable to simply terminate him, but I knew there was a butterfly in him, if we could nurture it to the surface.

His former direct report eventually became his boss.  While he did not have the same high level of education and credentials, he did have the necessary leadership skills to not only lead across the organization, but to unleash the butterfly that we both saw in Jim.   Jim is now happier than he has ever been, doing what he is the very best at.  He is now serving the organization with a servant’s heart, and the organization continues to benefit by his expertise.  He is also actively learning some valuable leadership lessons that will definitely benefit him in future roles.

Remember, every caterpillar is possessed by an internal motivation to become a butterfly.

Every caterpillar wants to be a butterfly.  They have an internal drive to grow and flourish.  They don’t have to be told what to do.  They just have to be in an environment conducive to becoming a butterfly.

Team members with similar qualities rise to challenges, learn everything they can about the business, are driven toward excellence, and are constantly looking for ways to make things better.  What I love so much about leading them is that they are filled with ideas about how to do things better, sometimes more ideas than your organization can embrace, sometimes more than you can afford, and sometimes ideas that your organization is simply not yet ready for.

People like these are not driven by more money, bigger titles, or bigger perks.  What seems to drive them was their desire to be an awesome butterfly.

As leaders of these kinds of team members you have the opportunity to create an environment where they can flourish.  Embrace as many of their ideas as possible.  Ensure that they know that you believe in them.  When their idea will not take you off the rails, consider going with them.  If the idea is problematic, help them explore it further, taking into account your thoughts and the organization’s constraints.

When they run into obstacles, do your best to help remove them so they could make progress toward their goals.  Recognize that some of those obstacles are entrenched in the culture of your organization.  When that’s the case help them understand how to lead change in and through those obstacles, to get small wins that may lead to greater change, until they get traction and momentum.

Recognize and reward them

While these types of employees are not driven by money and status, a leader must know that these things are important even to these highly motivated individuals, and must treat them fairly and pay them appropriately.  Additionally, leaders must talk to these people regularly about their future and commit to helping them achieve those goals.

If you are fortunate you may get to keep these people on your team, or at least on the larger company team.  However, you and I both know that there are not always enough opportunities in your organization for all of your high potential leaders.   Even then, there is great satisfaction in knowing these caterpillars that have become butterflies were once a part of your team.  Most of them will count their experience under your leadership as a highlight of their career.

That’s the thing about butterflies.  They do love to fly, and it is a beautiful sight to behold.






A Brief Fitness Checkup

I heard Stephen Covey speak at the Wal-Mart headquarters in 1992 shortly after his book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, became popular.  I was new to the for-profit business sector, so I paid close attention.   He made it very clear how important it is to begin with the end in mind.  He asked us to write a clear vision for how we want our lives to turn out when we are 75 years old.  Let me share with you a brief vignette of my personal vision:

My wife and I are sitting on the front porch of our home, which overlooks a body of water.  Just off the porch are all our kids, grandkids and possibly great grandchildren.  The kids speak up and say, “Come on Papa, let’s go play!”  So, I jump up off the porch and run with them to play.

Before you read on, let me ask you, what are the implications you see in this brief vignette?

  • My wife and I are still married. We are on year 43 now, but 75 years old is still a ways off, so I plan to keep on nurturing my marriage so she will still be there, and be happy several years from now.
  • We have a home overlooking a body of water. When I wrote this, I had no idea how that could ever be a reality.  But I did know that if it were ever going to be possible I was going to have to be financially responsible, live on less than I make, stay out of debt, and make wise financial decisions.
  • I am surrounded by family. I didn’t grow up in a family where that was a pleasant experience, so I knew how important it would be to nurture relationships with my three children, if for no other reason, than so they would bring the grandchildren around, which, by the way, are as much fun as everyone says.  Though they live from here in Arkansas, to Colorado, to Uganda, we stay involved in their lives, share common interests and work hard make our home an inviting place to them and their new families.
  • When the kids ask me to come go play, I jump up and go. I don’t know about you, but I know a lot of 75 year old’s who could never do that.  So, as much as it depends on me, I intend to be ready and able to do this as frequently as they ask.  So, what do I do?  I eat right.  I exercise 3 to 4 days each week.  We began this years ago as a family and now have a Wall of Pain in our house that depicts all kinds of running races, bike races and triathlons, including my son’s five ironman races.  The entire family has several pictures on the wall, including the in-laws who have joined the fun.  I actually think they believed it was a prerequisite to entry.

My full vision includes physical fitness, relational fitness, mental fitness, nutritional fitness, financial fitness, and social fitness.  Each of these take disciplined focus.  I don’t let up on them.  It seems like I am hearing of more and more friends and associates who are missing out on so much of life, health, and joy because they don’t or didn’t have a clear vision, and the right motivation to keep them focused on the disciplines to do all they could to ensure their vision became a reality.  So my encouragement to you, is to clarify your vision, and GET FIT in all the areas of life that are important to you.

Leaders Shape Others, Intentionally or Unintentionally

Leadership is a powerful thing.  Associate are watching just about everything you do and say.  From their observations, they take their cues about what is expected, what’s important, what’s funny, what’s approved and disapproved of, and so on.  Your words and actions actually have the power to shape the direction of a person’s life, and certainly their career.

Let me tell you a story about a leader whose words altered my life direction.  I went to high school in the small country town in Texas.  There were two things I loved most about high school, basketball and my agriculture/shop class.  I pretty much loved all things outdoors, including my horse, calf, chickens and fishing in the stock tank near my house.  Our school Ag/shop program served as the local free vet service to all the farmers around.  It also served as the fence, gate, trailer, and squeeze shoot builders for everybody in the county, and consistently won first place in regional county fair shop competitions.

I loved it so much that in my junior year I began to dream about becoming a Veterinarian.  I had no idea what it took to be a vet, so I spoke to “Doc” Price, my Ag teacher, whom I highly respected.  Not only was Doc a great guy, but he was the only person in town who had a Master’s Degree, so surely his advice on something like this should be followed, right?

I’ll never forget his response to my inquiry.  He said, “Tony, if you want to be a Veterinarian you are going to have to hold an “A” average in English”.  Talking about getting the wind knocked out of my sails, there was no way I could get my grades in English up to an A average in the next year.  I could have made straight As through the rest of high school and still couldn’t have averaged an A.  In my mind, the man, the leader, the person whom I looked up to most, just told me that becoming a Vet was virtually impossible.

I now know that he said those words to encourage me to buckle down and study, but they did more than that.  They really discouraged me for a while, and changed my life trajectory, sending me on a different career discovery path.

His words have also served to help me understand the power of my words as a leader.  So, I challenge you with these questions:

  • Am I careful in the use of my words to, and around my Associates?
  • Do my words help people grow and develop, or do they tear down and destroy?
  • Are my words encouraging or discouraging to those I lead?
  • How do I respond/react to Associates when they have completed a job successfully?
  • How do I respond/react to Associates when they make a mistake?
  • What is the tone they hear from me in our daily interactions?
  • Do I make my expectations clear enough for them to follow?
  • Do they know and really believe that I care about them as a person?
  • Do I really care about them as a person?
  • Do I welcome their ideas, criticisms and questions, or do my words and actions I shut them down, leaving them feeling as if, “we don’t pay them to think”?
  • Do my interactions with those I lead leave them better off or worse?
  • What one or two things will I do differently to ensure my words are positively impacting those I lead?

All this to remind you to be intentional with your words and actions, knowing they are shaping the future of those you lead.


The Well Trained, Emotionally Intelligent Leader

In a previous article we discussed the positive impact that a well-trained, emotionally intelligent leader can have on the health and well-being of our Associates.  The article concluded with, “What does this kind of leader look like?”

Before we answer the “What they do” question, we begin with the understanding that the best managers are in these leadership roles because they genuinely want to lead.

  • They are not in the role simply to advance their paycheck
  • They are not in the role simply to gain “power”
  • They are not in the role simply because they were good at their job and someone decided to make them the next leader. Being good at a job does not equate to being good at leadership/management (a mistake made by too many organizations)
  • They are sincerely interested in learning how to improve their leadership
  • They are humble enough to know what they don’t know, and to ask for help

Now, let’s look more closely at what they do:

  • They provide clear goals, objectives, role expectations and guidelines
  • They frequently let their Associates know how they are doing, i.e. they provide frequent feedback
  • They hold everyone (fairly) accountable to their goals, seeing to it that everyone carries their expected share of the workload
  • They communicate frequently, honestly and as transparently as possible to keep associates informed
  • They treat all Associates fairly and justly; they have an “open door” policy
  • They are approachable
  • They ensure that everyone in their department is treated with respect and dignity
  • They seek feedback from their Associates (and they listen to it)
  • They invite Associates to express their opinions, thoughts and ideas to improve things (and they listen)
  • They welcome Associates’ opinions and ideas and take them into consideration when making decisions (and they listen)
  • They provide as much decision control to their Associates as possible, depending on their assessment of the Associate’s capability
  • They involve Associates in change efforts
  • They are quick with recognition and appreciation (again, distributed fairly)
  • They are invested in the growth and development of those they lead

By the way, employees who perceive that their supervisors treat them fairly and justly have 30 percent lower incidents of heart disease even after adjusting for other risk factors such as smoking, obesity, high blood pressure, cholesterol and inactivity.  They have 70% less stress, 70% more job satisfaction, 19% increased productivity and are 22% more innovative when solving problems.

Leadership and Associate Well-Being

We speak regularly of the importance of Associate wellness and well-being in the workplace.  We give a lot of attention to engaging Associates in health building activities, such as daily exercise, weight loss and healthy eating.   We ask employees to engage in fitness challenges from time to time to add a little competitive spirit to these fun activities.  I am certainly a big believer in these.  My wife and I run four to five times each week.  We try to log a half-marathon every Spring and Fall.  I ride my road bike as often as possible.  My family has a “Wall of Pain” in our house that is literally lined with pictures commemorating various race completions.  I’m not a nut about this stuff.  It is just something we do for fun.  Will it make us healthier in the long run?  I really don’t know.  There are so many variables in that equation, all I can do is what I believe to be the best for my health and well-being.  My hope is that you will do the same.

In discussing health, wellness and healthcare with one of the country’s leading experts on corporate benefits, I was reminded that one of the best things we can do to help improve our Associates’ health and well-being is to grow our leaders and improve our culture so that employees are happier at work.

Intuitively I thought this to be sound advice, but I wanted further confirmation, so I dove into the research.  The research confirms that leaders, managers and front line supervisors can have an incredibly positive (or negative) impact on, not only on Associate Engagement, but also on their health and well-being.

A well-trained, emotionally intelligent leader/manager can have a positive impact on Associates in the following ways:

  • Lower stress
    • Working for a toxic boss elevates stress and stress hormones, the effects of which linger as much as 50% longer than task or performance oriented stress.
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Improved sense of justice and fairness
    • Resulting in reduced sickness related absences by 1.2 to 1.9 times
  • Increase immunity to illness, which translates into lower absenteeism
  • Lower rate of employee depression and/or burnout
  • Improved job satisfaction
  • Increase in overall life expectancy
  • Improved immune system, resulting in fewer illnesses and related absences
  • Improved social connections, which improves all the biological and psychological related improvements listed above
  • Improved sleep and reduced inflammation, resulting in less fatigue, improved productivity and fewer accidents on the job

The next great question is:  What does a well-trained, emotionally intelligent leader do differently than those other types?