LifesBigQ Review


Winter 2011

This issue contains two complementary articles: A Tribute to People of Authenticity by Dr. Bill DeMarco, and Personal Legacy: a Hidden Treasure by our colleague, Chris Spencer.

As in the past, this issue includes a number of useful links with free articles with empowering insights, as well as recommended books, videos and audio selections.  Enjoy and be inspired.  Cheers!  Dr. Bill DeMarco




Dr. Bill DeMarco

Have you ever met someone you almost immediately connected with; you found something special there?  I’m not writing about a romantic or emotional connection, but rather one of authenticity, a fundamental connection of one person to another.  A person that gives off a vibe that says I know:

  • What I am passionate about
  • Why I do what I do
  • How I should relate to people

This person doesn’t need to say much, hears rather than listens, and is committed to being in relationship with others!

I met such a man about six months ago.  For our purposes, let’s call him Ron.  I hired him to make my youngest son’s first car road-worthy.  This he did ahead of schedule and under budget.

Ron died suddenly a few days ago. His passing has hit me in a way that exceeds any reasonable expectations, given that we met only five or six times over six months. For the past few days, I’ve asked myself why his death has struck me this way.

Here’s what I know about Ron:

  • A master mechanic with his own one man shop and a passion for his craft
  • A man of high automotive repair standards
  • A man committed to providing customers with reasonable options
  • A teacher about those options
  • A man with repair price points typically well below those of the competition, because, as he said a number of times, that’s the right thing to do.

The few times I checked on the progress of the repair-work, I brought Ron a coffee. Like so many Canadians, he liked his Tim Horton’s coffee.  He was always grateful, stopping what he was doing while inviting me to chat about the car. It wasn’t long before we were talking about our children, careers, dreams, goals, challenges, beliefs, politics, and even sports.

While we agreed on much, we didn’t always share the same perspectives.  When our views were out of sync, Ron always showed a genuine interest in hearing about a different point of view.  You know when the other person in a conversation heard what you said because they never appear to be waiting for an opening to reinforce their point of view.  A conversation with Ron was always like that!

This is what I found out about Ron the Man:

  • A man of vision  looking forward to retiring when his last child graduates university in five years
  • A man who understood his values
  • A family man who valued traditions
  • A man of faith- committed to a belief system that is an integral part of his personal culture
  • A man of compassion

At a fundamental level, Ron is gone now.  But this is not meant to be an obituary.  Rather, it is a tribute to Ron’s legacy.  Ron lives on in his relationships with all those he came in contact with.

I’m not trying to make him out to be a saint or anything like that.  What I am saying, though, is that knowing him ever so briefly enriched my life.  His authenticity added value to my life, and, I am sure, the lives of many others.

Every now and then in my career, I have been blessed by coming into contact with people of authenticity at all levels of pre-employment, employment, and post-employment.

Here’s one of many examples:

I was honored to be a leadership and culture coach for a newly promoted Chief Information Officer of a Fortune 50 global multi-national consumer products company.  Let’s call him Tom. Tom taught me so much!  He is the embodiment of the American stereotype:  aggressive, hard working, focused, and very clear about his goals.

During the three years we worked together, Tom lived a life of authenticity, while saving his company over two hundred million dollars in costs a year for three consecutive years before he voluntarily retired.  Additionally, his operation significantly increased its volume of new customers, going from an exclusively internal IT function to a supplier of choice for the external market.

All of this was accomplished in spite of the fact that Tom knew early on that he was suffering from an hereditary degenerative eyesight illness which would lead to blindness in a few years.  He told me about this when we began working together.  As he said then, he wanted this assignment to be his crowning achievement; his greatest legacy.

My years as an executive, academic, and consultant-coach have taught me many things about people.  At the top of the list is that we are all complex!

As a Chief Information Officer, Tom had a point of view about both the bottom line and people, honed by years of service as the Chief Financial Officer of the same firm. Given how I described Tom as the embodiment of the American stereotype and his years as CFO,  you may be surprised to find out that Tom’s authenticity was all about service to internal and external clients, and treating all people with dignity and respect!

Tom never engaged in what he called the fool’s gold of early outs, reductions in force, downsizing, or any euphemism for treating people like commodities to build the business.  Instead, he believed in building the business the old fashioned way over mostly cutting costs to grow the bottom line.

While his approach may not work for everyone, it certainly worked for him and his company.  To hear him talk, his approach was the only way to go!

Don’t get me wrong.  He was tough as a manager, strict about financial and personal integrity, with a simultaneous reputation for being fair.

While employees frequently feared him, he was almost universally respected because employees at all levels always understood:

  • What was expected of them
  • Why they were expected to treat others with dignity and respect
  • How their job fit within the bigger picture

Tom was a man on a mission, a leader committed to vision-focused action. He would tell anyone who would listen that he got results as a byproduct of treating people with dignity and respect.  He genuinely inspired me and others around him!

I would not describe Tom as an overtly religious man, though he was a man of faith.  His commitment to people in many ways reflected the Golden Rule espoused by almost all of the major faiths and philosophers worldwide for thousands of years.

For example, Confucius wrote twenty five hundred years ago:

Do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself (Confucius, Analects 15.23).

You may be interested in what happened after Tom retired.  Well his degenerative eye disease significantly slowed down. Doctors attributed this to the lessening of stress in his life.

Concerning his IT Function, after winning international recognition for his accomplishments, and saving the company over six hundred million real dollars in three years while simultaneously growing the business, the firm threw Tom a special retirement bash.

Within a month of Tom’s retirement, his successor began creating his own legacy. The successor dismantled much of Tom’s accomplishments, leading to the total outsourcing of the function within a few years.  I’ll save a discussion of the differences between the two CIOs  as leaders for another time.

Tom now lives happily in retirement at a young age, lovingly caring for another one of his passions: growing orchids.

What did Ron the mechanic and Tom the CIO have in common?  As I see it, they were both men who knew:

  • What they were passionate about
  • Why they were doing what they did
  • How they needed to relate to people

They both:

  • Had a Vision
  • Understood and lived their Values
  • Respected traditions
  • Reflected their cultures and belief systems
  • Treated people with dignity & respect

If what you have read so far interests you, there are two things

you may want to do:

1. Read  more about a few people of authenticity to gain better insights into how they lived their lives.  Role models are important to all of us, and maybe there are some lessons for each of us hidden in the pages of the following and similar books. If you have not already read the following books, may I suggest one or two of them may be a good place to start:

For more reading , listening, and viewing suggestions, please refer to the Resources tab of

2. Start a dedicated journal where you can answer the following questions:


I hope you found this article useful.  Most importantly, I hope it honors the memory of Ron the Mechanic and the life of Tom the CIO.

The following article by our colleague, Chris Spencer, provides additional insights into legacy building.  This is an important issue with today’s boomer generation and all those committed to living their values.  Read -Reflect – Enjoy!  Dr. Bill DeMarco



PERSONAL LEGACY:  A Hidden Treasure


Chris Spencer

Every man is a quotation from all his ancestors.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

How often have you heard the phase everyone has a story? How many times, whether sitting on a plane, vacationing or just riding the commuter train to work have you met someone, and in a brief period of time been in awe of the story of their life.

Not long ago, story-telling was a dominant form of communication; a way to intimately share a person’s legacy or personal values. Many would say that storytelling is a lost art in a world that measures productivity by the hour hands on a clock and a dusty to-do-list proudly displaying a list of accomplished task. Others would perhaps measure their legacy by the value of their assets or the position they hold in the corporate structure.

The story-teller, however knows that things and checklists are only a distraction compared to the hidden treasure of really knowing oneself and expressing that knowledge in a way that adds value to another person.

A number of years ago, I was working for a major telecommunications company as an executive responsible for growing a part of the business. At an off-site meeting one year I was at an annual kick off / strategic planning meeting on the West Coast of Canada. As part of the meeting there were several guest speakers, one of which was the President / CEO of the company. After an hour of listening to him discuss the state the union, he left us with our marching orders for the year. His final comment was much anticipated but never the less still impactful.

Not to anyone’s surprise (as it was rumoured) he announced his retirement from the company after 40 years of service. After he made this rather emotional statement, someone asked him what he would do now? After a moment of reflection; (I got the feeling that he had pondered this question before many times)  Well, he said, I’m going to write a book called “Me, I Work”. Everyone laughed except for me. I couldn’t stop thinking about what the title of the book meant to him.

I had the opportunity to approach him during a reception later that afternoon and asked him directly; tell me about the title of your book. He smiled and told me that he had been thinking a lot about his personal legacy; that at 65 and now almost retired, he couldn’t help thinking about what he had accomplished in his professional and personal life.  After months of frustration trying to put his finger on the title of his book, he kept coming back to his last 40 years at the company; he had been preoccupied with work and building a dominant telecommunications company. So he said, I decided on “Me, I Work”.

My next question caught him off guard and I think made him feel a little un-easy. I asked him if he was happy with the title of his book. His answer was somewhat predictable. He said Chris, if I could turn the clock back 40 years knowing what I know now, I believe the title would have been different. I knew there was a lot behind that statement and I really didn’t need to hear the details; I already knew them having spoken to many men in the exact same position.

As I shook his hand and wished him all the best for his retirement and his book, I left him with these parting words. I told him to think about changing the title of his book; draw the title from your heart and not your professional experience. People will want to know about you as a person and not just what you did for 12 hours a day for 40 years. I told him I’d call him in one year for an up-date on the project. He laughed with a somewhat perplexed look on his face………and said; you do that.

Well, I called him one year later and asked how the book project was going. He told me he had abandoned the title as I’d suggested but had struggled with the content thereafter. He came to the conclusion that it’s hard to write a book that comes from your heart if you’re not entirely sure who you are post career! At that, I smiled and said; perhaps I could share with you a business idea I’ve been thinking about. I basically said to him; if there was a process to help you define yourself, and your legacy (present and future) and then helped you to write your story, would this service be of interest to people like yourself. I big smile came across his face and the next thing he said helped launch Personal Legacy Corporation some years later.

Chris, he said………….how much would it cost & when we can start!

So many of the men I interview have shared similar stories; talking openly about what it’s been like to transition out of their professional life, reflect on their careers, and really pinpointing what they want to accomplish next. While all men seem to agree that more time for grandchildren, their wives, travel and golf are great; they all still feel a restlessness to do something else, something that comes from their heart;  something that would really raise the bar and firmly establish their legacy in a uniquely personal way.

Ghost writing a book is a great way to begin this journey; coupled with consciously creating a personal legacy plan. Establishing business-like objectives can breed new passion into this phase of a man’s life; when his legacy development and planning will create his enduring mark on the world.

The Legacy Planning Process  Sample Elements / Recommendations

1. Personal Legacy Development

Consciously create your own personal legacy plan. Visualizing how you want to be remembered forms your plan for a life of purpose, fulfillment, and happiness that will endure time (see PowerPoint presentation on steps to create a personal legacy plan)

2. Ghost Writing (Autobiographies & Memoirs & Personal Letters)

Writing a book will is truly one of the most rewarding personal experiences. It allows us to introduce ourselves in a way that reveals our true nature, while leaving a lasting mark on the world.

3. Personal Web Site Development (public or restricted access)

Creating your own person web-site (hosted and authored / managed by PLC) will create your own personal fingerprint on the World Wide Web. Share stories, regular blogs, pictures, accomplishments with those you love. This is a great way to brand or re-brand yourself as you build your personal legacy.

4. Philanthropic Planning

An important part of creating your personal legacy plan is clearly indentifying your long term philanthropic desires.  Creating foundations, memorials etc. will reveal key aspects of your character that will become your link to the future.

15 Legacy Discovery Questions: Personal Legacy Inc. (PLC)

1.  Tell me 3 things about yourself?

2. Tell me about your father; what kind of man was he?

3. What has been your biggest accomplishment in life to-date?

4. What has been your biggest perceived failure in life-to-date?

5. What is the biggest challenge in your life today?

6. Count the costs of your career and not the assets (list 5 costs)

7. What are you passionate about?

8. Blank Canvas: your vision for your future………describe?

9. Were there any specific traumatic events in your life you’d care to mention?

10.What are you spiritual beliefs?

11.How would you describe your personal legacy?

12.Is the personal legacy you’ve created what you were hoping for?

13.Do you know your life purpose?

14.Would the people at your funeral be quoting your life as an example to follow?

15.Finally, if you had the opportunity to live again, would the life you just lived be an inspiration and an example for your new life?

For each of the above questions, I ask my clients to write a page or two describing what first comes to mind when they read the question. The cumulative result from reading the 15 to 30 odd pages is deeply revealing and serves as a great jumping off point to the planning process.

Jesus said each of you can create greater works than I have

It’s Never Too Late.

Recently I’ve had the opportunity to talk with several men in the 75+ age category, great men with great stories and very interested in their personal legacy. One of the major fears they have was that it was too late for them to define their brand and create the legacy that they wanted to be remembered by. In a couple cases there were broken families involved, and in others, a residual sadness or reflection of time past where they did not focus on the things that really mattered to them now. Each story was unique to the individual and in all cases the question was is there still time for me to influence the lives of those most important to me, and be remembered in a way that I feel good about.

The answer is a resounding YES! There is never a bad time to start thinking about your legacy and it’s never too late to create a legacy you can feel very good about. Does it take work……yes, does it take some time…….yes; however, in as little as six months, you can completely change the perspective of your  life and how you’re remembered; below are some example of areas where I’ve coached people into actions that have defined their attitude towards personal legacy development ; their unique brand if you will. I all cases, it has been a combination of actions directed from a clear vision.

Re-definition of Philanthropic goals / long term planning

  • Writing a Memoire
  • Writing Children’s books for grandchildren
  • Creating a memorial (and maintenance fund) dedicated to a loved one
  • Creating a living will
  • Writing a Personal Legacy Plan
  • Organizing a family re-union
  • Building a personal web-site (sharing stories, pictures, letters, vision etc.)
  • Writing letters to loved ones
  • Spiritual Counselling
  • Organizing age appropriate mission trips
  • Professional Family Portrait (painting or photographic)
  • Pursuit of lost dreams (hobbies, creative endeavours, family)

The above are only a few of the tools I use to coach people through the personal legacy development process. Everything above can be relevant whether you are 50 or 85. The only thing stopping you from achieving your objectives is YOU.

To the point above, my uncle, a famous jazz musician and arranger (Phil Nimmons) is still writing music, playing shows, teaching students at University of Toronto and continues to evolve his personal legacy. He was over 80 when he received the Order or Canada and the Governor General award………not bad!

Each day that passes is a day you can make a conscious decision to create or re-define your personal legacy. For many, the only thing holding them back is making the decision to take action, or a fear of the unknown. At PLC we make this process (which can be cathartic to the client) an enjoyable journey of self discovery with many positive residual benefits. My experience tells me that the worst thing that can happen is that people will raise an eyebrow and wonder what you are doing. People may not react immediately, but over time the response is generally very much in line with your desired outcome.

Recommended Reading:

  • When Success Isn’t Enough: Dr. Robb Musgrave, Legenis Holdings Publishers
  • Half Time(Moving from Success to Significance): Bob Buford, Vonervan Publishing
  • As a Man Thinketh: James Allen, Dover Publishing
  • Wild at Heart: John Eldredge, Thomas Nelson Publishing
  • The Knight in Rusty Armor: Robert Fisher, Wilshire Book Company Publishing
  • My Grandfather’s Garden: Chris Spencer, Tate Publishing





Fall  2010

This issue contains two complementary articles: Finding Our Inner Leader by Dr. Bill DeMarco and The Importance of Being Real by our colleague and guest contributor, Dr. Michael Maginn.

Included in this issue are a number of useful links with free articles with empowering insights, as well as recommended books , videos and audio selections. Enjoy and be inspired. Cheers! – Dr. Bill DeMarco


Finding Our Inner Leader


Dr. Bill DeMarco


In the early days of the American Republic, John Adams, future second President of the United States and then U.S. Ambassador to the Court of St. James, was asked why he was so consumed by the study of so many academic disciplines.  His answer is very revealing to students of LifesBigQuestion:

I must study politics and war that my (children) may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My (children) ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.

Anyone in search of the answer to LifesBigQuestion, what do I do with the rest of my life, is, in reality, looking for a new way of relating to their universe. It is as if John Adams is speaking to all encouraging learning from the past, understanding the present, and visioning the future.

To do this effectively, we need to constantly challenge how we see our universe.  Yes, our universe because what we see and relate to is ours alone!  It is akin to our looking at the night sky and seeing stars and planets that were there hundreds, thousands and millions of years ago, but are not there as we see them right now.

Each of us sees the universe of our relationships through our prisms of past experiences.  This is where our value judgments come from.

By comparing what we find with what we know, a notion of differences and similarities in the world around us emerges. These differences and similarities effectively serve as our model of interpretation.

I call this model of interpretation our prism vision.

The sociologist and physicist, Marc van der Erve recently wrote in “A New Leadership Ethos” : People construct an image of their world starting with the things they know.  In other words, when exploring the world around us, we search for things that we are familiar with in our mental backyard [New Leadership Ethos ].

The new inner leader paradigm calls for expanding our ability to interpret our universe beyond the limitations imposed by our prism vision. Those in search of answers to LfesBigQuestion are searching for their inner leader.

Students of workshops are taught how to find their inner leader beyond the boundaries of their prism vision.  In so doing, it enhances the likelihood of fulfilling the great leadership challenge: causing willing effort to be expended to achieve the vision!

In a cosmic sense, all acts of leadership create a new reality at a unique moment in time.  Eric Hoffer, a common-sense award winning everyman philosopher of the mid twentieth century cautioned all would-be leaders to constantly challenge personal assumptions through a lifetime of learning. In his famous 1963 work, The Ordeal of Change, Hoffer wrote: “In times of change, learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves perfectly equipped to inherit a world that no longer exists! ” This is a call to continue to learn through challenging our assumptions of what we know.


This is nothing new. After all, it is Socrates who said thousands of years ago that “the unexamined life is not worth living!” The ancient academy and intellectual genius of Aristotle, Plato, Socrates and others understood that to make sense of the world, leadership’s first commandment is to clearly “know thyself” and “know what you don’t know” [Greatest Minds & Ideas of All Times ].

In the process of inquiry championed by the ancient academy, society developed the  Western canon of ethos (character), pathos (emotion) and logos (logic) [Values Based Leadership]

For centuries, the philosophy and leadership practice of the West was based on Thomistic Philosophy, as expressed in Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica.  Thomistic Philosophy was a hybrid of the Greek philosophers, natural law, and Christian theological / philosophical tradition.

This canon evolved in the middle ages as a tower of knowledge under the scholastic system for a university student that proceeded from grammar, by way of logic, rhetoric, arithmetic, music, geometry, astronomy and physics to theology the queen of the science.

It is easy to see how John Adams comes out of this academic tradition.  It was a context founded on faith and expressed in the motto of Oxford University “dominus illuminatio mea” (The lord is my light¦the first three words of Psalm 27).  Learning was connected to the sacred.


The eighteenth century saw the rise of the Age of Enlightenment as expressed by Adam Smith and others. God was thanked and placed in the cupboard. Thomistic Philosophy was replaced by rational determinism.

This led to a nineteenth and twentieth century industrial paradigm where Western society became detached from the spiritual order with the rapid birth of the modern mind and the secular state.

This ultimately led to leaders being allowed to be detached from any consequences as long as they could rationalize their decisions. This shows up for each of us in our inner leader where we use our existing prism vision to rationalize our decisions and choices on a regular basis.

At a macro level among the super powerful, a visible global consequence of this manifested itself in the causes of the 2008 economic meltdown. Institutional and personal greed, widespread lack of or greatly diminished sense of social responsibility, and flawed, possibly unethical, yet mostly legal business plans were all caught up in an economic perfect storm.

Most public and private power brokers easily rationalized and justified their choices before, during and after the meltdown.  Today, it is almost as if nothing was learned from this horrific worldwide economic perfect storm!


When faced with a life transition, as we are when we are in search of answers to LifesBigQuestion, there is a need for new thinking.  Developing/updating a personal sense of purpose requires looking for new models. The good news is that we truly have at least two millennia of  both Western and Eastern traditions to draw upon.

In addition, we can look to Indigenous peoples around the world for valuable insights. For example, the Maori of New Zealand focus on the Economy of Manna (Affection) founded on four well-beings: economic, social, environmental, and spiritual. In their paradigm, social-economic activity is a consequence of spiritual outpouring.


This is heady stuff, I know, but answering LifesBigQuestion is really challenging for each of us.  There are no silver bullets, no shortcuts, no easy ways. It calls for serious reflection about ourselves and our universe. It’s all about sense-making that inspires a vision that leads to focused action!

For a good visual of what it means to take this challenge head on, read/view Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love.  In it, she describes her nearly yearlong fully dedicated search for her inner leader (giving purpose to effort and inspiring willing effort to support that purpose).  She calls it finding her balance.

If Eastern mysticism is of interest to you as it is to Elizabeth Gilbert,  you might want to check out either of the following two books:  The Way Of Chuang Tzu, by Thomas Merton, a poet, social acitivist, student of comparative religions, and best selling Catholic Trappist Monk; and Lama Surya Das’s Awakening the Buddha Within: Eight Steps to Enlightenment, all about Tibetan wisdom for the Western World.  All three of the books mentioned here and many others (Top 75 Recommended Resources) can help inspire each of us to find our life’s balance.

HELP IS AVAILABLE is all about helping adults of all ages find and be driven by their inner leader!  We do this by offering time-tested, practical, and academically sound products and services.

Our Workshops, for instance, focus on finding inner passions, identifying obstacles, and creating appropriate action plans.

I am occasionally asked why isn’t’s ultimate goal creating action rather than just a plan. The reason is quite simple: only YOU can act on your plan. helps develop the tools and mindset required to make a difference in your universe of relationships.

If you want to learn more, go to our Life Strategy Workshop Video.


The Importance of Being Real: The Abilene Paradox


Dr. Michael D. Maginn

It is a scorching, dusty July day in Coleman, Texas. Four people are waiting out the heat, sipping lemonade in the shade of a farmhouse porch. At one point, someone suggests they drive to Abilene, 53 miles away, to have a bite in a cafeteria there.

The others think it’s a crazy idea, but they say nothing and go along. They drive all the way to Abilene in a non-air-conditioned car through a dust storm, have a mediocre meal and drive back to Coleman hours later, tired, hot and unhappy.

When they return home, they reveal that they didn’t want to go in the first place but did because they thought the others were eager for the drive.

Of course, this gap in communication was someone else’s fault.

Here we have the Abilene Paradox, a phenomenon of group dynamics first identified by Jerry Harvey of George Washington University in 1974. The paradox is that people go along with a bad decision, knowing full well that it was a bad decision in the first place. The result is the complete opposite of what was intended at the outset: half-baked support, uninspired ideas, and wasted time and money on results that fall short of expectations.


We’ve all experienced the Abilene Paradox, especially in decision-making meetings. We struggle to make a decision, come to an agreement only to find, in our heart of hearts, that we did so only because of what we assumed about the desires and opinions of others.

If you’ve said to yourself in those situations, Who cares; it’ll be okay whatever we decide, or Guess I’ll go with the flow, you are on your way to Abilene. We assume the others really do want to go to Abilene, even though we don’t, but we agree to go anyway. And, if each individual has the same misguided assumptions, then the action is something that no one wants. We agree as a group, but as individuals, we have regrets. One can say this is an absurd situation.

Why do people actually support things that go against what they desire? What happened to the outspoken individual with ideas to contribute and concepts to roll around in?

According to Harvey, in group settings, expressing your real beliefs creates some degree of anxiety. Should you maintain your own integrity and self-worth by speaking your mind, or do you compromise your values and go with what you think is the consensus?

The anxiety comes from the magical belief that something disastrous will happen to you if you do reveal your real thoughts. Oh, I’ll get fired if I do that. I’ll get labeled a maverick. I’ll look like a fool. I’ll be unlikable. Since you believe those things will happen if you speak your true mind, you wind up not being honest about what you really think. These magical consequences provide an excuse for being quiet.

And what do those magical and negative consequences represent? Alienation, separation, ostracism; these are powerful, underlying fears, so powerful that we will act against our own interest to avoid the risk of not being part of something. Of course, doing so winds you up in Abilene.


But isn’t compromise part of work life? Don’t we go against our own interests when we agree to go along? In her new book, The Compromise Trap, Elizabeth Doty draws a line between healthy compromise that is necessary for accomplishing goals and unhealthy compromises that betray beliefs and values. When unhealthy compromises pile up, the conflict inside your head can cause stress and many trips to Abilene (as well as the very alienation, separation or ostracism you feared in the first place!).

Her approach is to recognize when you are pressured to play by rules that undermine your beliefs and/or common sense, and play a different game by being true to yourself, no matter how difficult the circumstances. The key to playing this different game is to question your assumptions. Is this decision really in the group’s interest? Are others committed to this or just feeling pressed to go along? What are the costs to me if I go along, including the costs to my self-respect and other’s ability to trust me? And finally, will I really get fired, ostracized, or marginalized if I focus on helping the group reach its goals?

In her book, Elizabeth shows numerous examples of professionals who questioned their assumptions and discovered the consequences of speaking up were not as bad as they first appeared, at least not in comparison to dust and heat of Abilene.

So, how do you know your team is on the road to Abilene? Here are some indicators:

Soft and ambiguous language. Is vagueness and opacity on the agenda versus clear and descriptive words? Vagueness leads to low comprehension that leads to uncertainty about how to react. Collateralized Debt Obligations, anyone?

Missed opportunities. Do people come out of meetings saying something like, What I really wanted to say was? We individually and privately have a completely different opinion than the one we expressed in the team.

No fun. Are meetings formal, serious, procedural and somewhat intimidating? Is there any room at all for spontaneity of expression?

Authority plays. Beware the authority figure who subtlety deflects ideas, inserts his/her own preferences, and uses forceful language to press home points with no repartee from the group.

Looking for a scapegoat. We were all in on the crummy decision; we are all to blame. Under those circumstances, it’s not a good sign to be placing blame. That’s a sign you’ve been to and maybe are still in Abilene.Low involvement. Are there people in the meeting who do not contribute? Why?

Low questioning and probing. What’s the ratio of question asking to contributing ideas?

Awareness of process. Do people realize they are producing agreements that no one really wants?

The point is that you need to step in with your true point of view, whatever it is. To get people to listen, be diplomatic, choose your words carefully and back up your thoughts with logic and data. People won’t listen to ideas being forced on them.


Unfortunately, the Abilene Paradox plays itself out in real life situations where ersatz decision-making has severe consequences. One well-publicized example was the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961. Here is what a CIA officer wrote about the final stages of the decision-making process.

It is hard to believe in retrospect that the president and his advisers felt the plans for a large-scale, complicated military operation that had been ongoing for more than a year could be reworked in four days and still offer a high likelihood of success. It is equally amazing that we in the agency agreed so readily.

For more information about the Abilene Paradox, see The Abilene Paradox and Other Meditations On Management by Jerry Harvey. For more on unhealthy compromises, see The Compromise Trap by Elizabeth Doty.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:Dr. Michael D. Maginn has been a consultant for over 25 years, working with senior teams to implement strategy through successful processes, performers, and teams. He founded Singularity Group in 1983 and has worked with many large and small organizations as well as consulting companies to help them solve performance problems of all kinds. He is the author of Managing In The Midst of Change, How to Make Teams Work, Effective Teamwork, and 5 Skills of Master Salespeople. He publishes SingularityManagerZine, a commentary on management issues, designed and conducted the Gettysburg Leadership Experience for the Conference Board, and created flagship programs for Tom Peters Company, The Forum Corporation and other consulting companies.

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