The Tao of Leadership 孫子 领导法

Sunzi on LeadershipLeadership is a matter of
☯ intelligence
☯ trustworthiness
☯ humaneness
☯ courage
☯ discipline
                        – Sun Zi (Sun Tzu) Art of War
Reliance on intelligence alone results in rebelliousness.
Exercise of humaneness alone results in weakness.
Fixation on trust results in folly.
Dependence on the strength of courage results in violence.
Excessive sternness of command results in cruelty.
When one has all five virtues together…then one can be a leader.
                                      – Tang Dynasty Commentator Jia Lin

You have probably heard of the Chinese classic The Art of War, the basic ideas of the work being attributed to an ancient Chinese general, strategist, and counselor name Sun Zi (Master Sun) during the Spring and Autumn period in Chinese history (approximately 771 to 476 BC). The work is a part of the Daoist (Taoist) tradition of philosophy, remarkable for its short but profound understanding of not just war, but of the nature of human relationships and power. In the opening section, he lists five characteristics of a general, but says little else directly about the subject. However, the application of those five characteristics can be seen throughout the rest of his short work. Over the centuries, Chinese ruling elite studied, commented upon, and followed the principles in The Art of War, influencing many other strategists and thinkers from Asian and then other nations. The quote above, from the Tang Dynasty (618-907) commentator, illustrates the Daoist philosophy of balance. Too much or too little of any one of the five characteristics is flawed and ineffective.

An example of the Daoist influence on the work can be seen in the first in the list of leadership characteristics—intelligence, or wisdom. The wisdom or intelligence of a leader is demonstrated in one who can anticipate events through deep thought and comprehension. The ultimate measure of success of a leader-general is one who wins victory but does so by avoiding conflict altogether. In the first section, Sun Zi declares, “Subjugating the enemy’s army without fighting is the true pinnacle of excellence.” This idea expands on the concepts in the Daoist work The Book of Balance and Harmony, which describes intelligence or wisdom as such:

Deep knowledge is to be aware of disturbance before disturbance, to be aware of danger before danger, to be aware of destruction before destruction, to be aware of calamity before calamity….

By deep knowledge of principle, one can change disturbance into order, change danger into safety, chance destruction into survival, change calamity into fortune….

To sense and comprehend after action is not worthy of being called comprehension. To accomplish after striving is not worthy of being called accomplishment. To know after seeing is not worthy of being called knowing. These three are far from the way of sensing and response.

Indeed, to be able to do something before it exists, sense something before it becomes active, see something before it sprouts, are three abilities that develop interdependently. Then nothing is sensed but comprehended, nothing is undertaken without response, nowhere does one go without benefit.


Application for Today


Effective leadership comes from balance–being intelligent but not arrogant, trusting but not naïve, humane but not weak, courageous but not foolish, disciplined but not harsh. One might consider other characteristics of leadership (such as fairness), all of which require balance.


Another application is the practice of mindfulness, of deeply considering situations and anticipating outcomes, particularly problems, before they become problems. The Daoists tell a story of an ancient and renowned physician who was one of three brothers in the same family who practiced medicine. This most well-known figure was asked which of the three brothers did he think was most skilled. He replied, “My eldest brother sees the spirit of sickness and removes it before it takes shape, so his name does not go out of the house. My elder brother cures sickness when it is still extremely minute, so his name does not get out of the neighborhood. As for me, I puncture veins, prescribe potions, and massage skin, so from time to time my name gets out and is heard among the lords.”[1] His humble answer illustrates the superior value of anticipating and avoiding problems, over being a great problem-solver.

Copyright © 2017 by Robert Cummings All rights reserved.

[1] Sun Tzu, The Art of War: The Denma Translation, translated by Thomas Cleary, Boston: Shambhala, 1988, p. xi.

Have You Written Your Personal Purpose Statement?

Many of us work for companies that display their mission statement or vision…so why shouldn’t we articulate our own purpose to give us direction and increase our success?

“The unexamined life is not worth living.” Attributed to Socrates, by Plato

A life-changing inspiration for a young man looking for a purpose. Retrieved from October 1974 archives at

The picture above, featured in the October 1974 issue of Boy’s Life magazine, changed my life! Growing up in a small Indiana town, impatiently waiting to be 12 years old, the sight of that boy gazing into the future, holding a model of a sleek white, twin-engine T-38 training jet…the high performance sports car of training aircraft…ignited my imagination! That issue included an engaging story of a young boy learning to fly from his pilot father. About the same time, I read another story of the challenges and pride of making it through basic cadet training at the Air Force Academy in Colorado. This inspired me to establish my first five- and ten-year objectives for my life—to attend the Academy and become a pilot. It was a proud moment for me to receive my wings in a ceremony at Williams Air Force Base in Arizona, and I still had a few five and ten-year goals I was pursuing; but to be honest, I was still a bit hazy on an overall purpose as a 25-year-old pilot. It wasn’t until later that I discovered the power that lies in articulating a personal purpose statement.

On the flightline at Williams AFB, Arizona

Expressing a purpose statement in writing gives our lives focus and motivation. What do we want to accomplish in our lives? Where are our lives presently headed? Is it the direction that we want to go? Most importantly, do we know why we want to get there? Perhaps the best way to answer the all-important “why” question is to start with a self-examination of our own passions, talents, and dreams. What types of activities inspire us to hop out of bed and hit the floor running rather than lay on our backs thumbing through Facebook feeds? Research confirms the common sense idea that workers who regard their work as enjoyable, challenging, and meaningful are much more engaged and productive in that work.[1] People tend to have three different attitudes toward their work, viewing it as a either a job, a career, or a calling.[2] Those who view work as a job are only focused on the material benefits the job brings. Increased self-esteem, social standing, or other external rewards motivate those who see their work as a career. But those who find deep meaning in their work, who see it as a calling that fits their natural drive and talents, find the work to be its own reward. These fortunate people, who have put their minds to finding a purpose in life and appreciate the meaning of their work, are psychologically happier and physically healthier.[3] The good news is that we can choose to make ourselves one of those fortunate people by proactively finding the meaning in our work and life.

Attitudes Toward Work

In the award-winning book So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love, author Cal Newport shows that people who end up seeing their work as a calling don’t get there by the old adage of “following their passion.” Instead, he found that people passionate about their work started with deep effort, focused intently on becoming excellent at something valuable. Psychologist Angela Duckworth found having superior determination, what she calls having “grit,” is much better at predicting success than intelligence or natural talent. She also sees that people with grit tend to stick to one interest and, to keep from getting bored, find the nuances of developing mastery rather than searching for novelty in something different. That’s closely related to the concept of “deliberate practice,” which Peak author Anders Ericsson describes as using good feedback to focus on specific techniques that will lead to real improvement. You may have heard of the “10-year, 10,000-hour” rule, made well-known by author Malcom Gladwell in his book Outliers. He contends that it takes 10,000 hours of effortful practice, which would take someone about 10 years, to really master a craft to a top level. People who experience their work as a calling fully engage with their mind and body and push their expertise to the limit.  So, the why and how these people have for their work is much more important than what they do.

The passion that comes with seeing your work as a calling must be cultivated by nurturing specific motivational areas that can apply to any type of work. In a podcast interview, Newport noted, “the type of factors we know from the research that lead to a sense of passion for your work include a sense of autonomy, a sense of competence or mastery, a sense of connection to people or a mission, a sense of impacting and a sense of creativity.” The sense of autonomy means that people feel they have a choice over their work, and are able to act on those choices. Autonomous people don’t wait around for a boss to tell them what to do, step by step. They engage their imagination and creativity to make work meaningful. The motivating factors of having a sense of mission and making an impact are more easily accomplished by having a written personal mission statement. As leaders, we want to provide a work environment that develops the factors of autonomy, competency, connection to people and mission, positive impact, and creativity…but we should start with ourselves. A great starting place is by stating our personal purpose.


Thoughtfully asking ourselves “Why am I here?” is the type of self-examination it takes to discover our life purpose statement. How many of us work for companies that have a “mission statement,” “vision,” or other MBA-approved wording that is designed to inform and guide their workers, investors, suppliers and customers, giving a clear idea of the fundamental purpose of that organization? If companies do this to be more successful, then it makes sense that we can improve the chances of our success by doing the same. Leadership starts with self-awareness, having a solid base and strong sense of direction. A purpose statement keeps us on track and informs all the other decisions in our lives. The more solid and personally tailored it is, the more it helps us overcome temporary emotions or confusion in chaotic situations. It helps us define who we are and what we are about.

Activity: Discover and Write a Personal Purpose Statement

What to Do: Reflect on your talents, interests, and dreams, and write a one to two sentence Personal Purpose Statement.

Tips on How to Do It:

  1. Ask “what are my strengths?” This may be from your own self-assessment, but I highly recommend asking friends or trusted colleagues what they see as your strengths. Think about your strengths in terms of the value that you can create with them.
  2. Ask yourself what you enjoy working on or studying about…it may not be your strongest point, but does it get you so interested that you enjoy spending free time, or lose track of time, while you do it?
  3. Reach back to your childhood…what games or activities did you like to do as a child? Was there anything that you said that you wanted to be when you grew up that might still apply to your interests as an adult?
  4. After identifying your interests and strength, focus on a target group for whom you create value.
  5. Think about the desired outcome, from the successful execution of your purpose.


“Continuously acquire new and apply current knowledge and skills to 1) develop my mental, physical, emotional, relational and spiritual self; and 2) positively impact my immediate environment by humbly educating and improving the condition of my fellow human beings.” (This is my personal purpose statement)

“Use my musical and artistic talents to bring joy to people searching for inspiration.”

Developing one’s purpose statement is an on-going process that can and should be tweaked on a regular basis. It’s easy to get caught in the routines of daily life and lose sight of the end goal. In the next article, I will discuss developing life guiding principles, incorporating positive traits that act as guideposts to keep us headed on the path aligned with our life purpose. Stay tuned!

Copyright © 2017 by Robert Cummings All rights reserved.

[1] Stairs, M. and Gilpin, M. (2010) Positive Engagement: From Employee Engagement to Work Place Happiness. In P. A. Linley, S. A. Harrington and N. Garcea (Eds.), Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology and Work. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[2] Wrzesniewski, A. (2003) Finding Positive Meaning in Work. In K. Cameron, J. Dutton and R. Quinn (Eds.), Positive Organizational Scholarship: Foundations of a New Discipline. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.

[3] Seligman, M. (2006) Authentic Happiness, Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment. London: Nicholas Brealey.

If it ain’t broke….Anticipate it breakin’!

We can’t shrink from looking below the surface just because we’re too lazy or too afraid to find something we don’t like. When things are going well is exactly the time to anticipate our future.

On November 2, 2007, an experienced pilot was sitting confidently in charge of the US Air Force’s formidable fighter, an F-15C, zooming over the prairies of Missouri powered by two Pratt & Whitney F100 engines, capable of producing up to 47,000 pounds of afterburning thrust. But what surely seemed like an ordinary mission catastrophically exploded into the most extraordinary event in this pilot’s life. Unexpectedly, while performing a routine maneuver which this agile fighter had executed countless times in its long and distinguished air superiority role, the aircraft literally began to break apart. Although the pilot sustained injuries to his left shoulder and arm, he acted “focused, precisely and appropriately” according to the accident board, and successfully ejected from the flying hunks of metal. The several pieces of the 41.7 million USD aircraft thankfully only caused minimal private property damage as they plummeted to the ground.

Decades old but still formidable, the F-15C. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Shane A. Cuomo)

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!

How many times have you heard the saying, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”? (In Thai, อะไรที่มันไม่ได้เสีย ก็อย่าไปซ่อม) It implies, of course, that we should not make adjustments to processes or possessions that have been continuously functioning well. But that is a philosophy of complacency, being too comfortable with the status quo, which will catch us reacting to problems rather than proactively preventing them. Colin Powell has counseled aspiring leaders, “Keep looking below the surface appearances. Don’t shrink from doing so just because you might not like what you find.” Things may be looking normal, like the routine mission of the F-15C, but closer inspection may find preventable problems.


In a high-performance aircraft, the metal structure of the plane experiences many cycles of extreme force, and when metal is stressed repeatedly it can become “fatigued,” or weakened. Aircraft manufacturers perform extensive tests to find the limits of the stress that aircraft parts can take, such as in this test-to-failure of the Boeing 777 wing.

In the aging fleet of F-15s, which had been produced since the 1970s, a critical structural part that ran along the length of the body of the plane, called a longeron, was experiencing this weakening. According to the accident investigation report of this incident, “a technical analysis of the recovered F-15C wreckage determined that the longeron didn’t meet blueprint specifications. This defect led to a series of fatigue cracks in the right upper longeron. These cracks expanded under life cycle stress, causing the longeron to fail, which initiated a catastrophic failure of the remaining support structures and led to the aircraft breaking apart in flight.” That’s a little technical talk, but what it really spells is “one bad day for a pilot.” The particular part in question was designed to be able to take forces on the aircraft of twelve times the force of gravity (or 12 Gs). (If you’ve ever ridden a roller coaster, that force that you feel pushing you into your seat when you go around a sharp curve is a kind of G-force. Someone who weighs 100 kilograms at one G would feel like they weigh 1200 kilograms at 12 Gs). In the several months of investigation after the accident and report, in which the F-15 fleet was grounded, some longerons were found to be out of tolerance of specified structural requirements by as much as 40%, apparently due to production problems from the supplying factory. That means there was possibly a decades-long chain of people not looking “under the hood” of normal operations to find this potential problem. Was it because of complacency, fear of finding a complicated problem, or just lack of anticipation? In any case, the incident teaches  a great lesson of a leadership action that helps keep operations running smoothly and safely: Anticipation

The yellow area shows the metal structure, called a longeron, that failed in the accident. Picture source:

Fix it before it breaks!

One of the learnable, practical actions of a talented leader is anticipation of future events, or being proactive. Anticipating involves the following elements:

Elements of Anticipation

  • Continuously examine data and the environment to anticipate problems or changes.
  • Always have a questioning attitude.
  • Look for leading signals, rather than lagging ones.
  • Reinforce early reporting of details that might signal a problem. Encourage dissenting or alternate opinions.

In high-reliability operations, in which a single incident can have catastrophic consequences, it’s essential to anticipate possible root causes of potential incidents. Taking the time to visualize things that might go wrong, and doing a root cause analysis before an accident, can pay huge dividends. There are many techniques to do a root cause analysis, but in a simple version, you can focus on these three types of causes:

3 Types of Causes of Incidents

  • Physical cause: equipment failure.
  • Human Cause: person did or did not do something.
  • System Cause: A management system component that failed to support the correct human behavior.

As General Powell said, we can’t shrink from looking below the surface just because we’re too lazy or too afraid to find something we don’t like. When things are going well is exactly the time to anticipate our future.

Copyright © 2017 by Robert Cummings All rights reserved.

The Chemistry Between Us: Roles of Hormones in Leadership, Trust, and Well-Being

Understanding the invisible biochemical processes going on inside ourselves and others helps us explain the visible behaviors that affect teamwork and productivity. We can also take steps to positively influence biofeedback loops.

Have you ever noticed how a dog will look into your eyes, as if it understands your emotions? It turns out that dogs, more than any other species, share a special trust bond with humans, and it’s partly based on the same chemical bond that we humans experience when building trust among ourselves. Experiments show that when dogs and their owners stare into each other’s eyes, they experience a release of the same bonding and trust hormone, called oxytocin, shared between a nursing mother and her child. In fact, one study found that owners that spent the most time gazing at their dogs experienced a 300% increase in oxytocin levels, while their pets saw a 130% rise. It’s amazing that our beloved canine companions and we can share a single chemical compound that draws closer together in a circle of trust and affection. That chemical creates a positive feedback loop, where a trusting gesture like gazing or touching releases oxytocin, which reinforces feelings of trust, which primes the body for more trusting gestures, which releases more oxytocin, and so on. But oxytocin isn’t the only chemical wonder going on inside of us affecting our well-being.

Gazing into your dog’s eyes, as well as touching, releases the bonding and trust-building hormone oxytocin in both of you. Picture Source:

Hormones Affecting Behavior and Emotions

Our bodies are constantly experiencing a complex pattern of chemical reactions, with more than 200 hormones or hormone-like substances coursing through our veins, influencing behavior—the elixirs of life. The word hormone comes from the Greek word for “excite” or “spur on,” illustrating the role that these chemicals play in triggering our moods and behaviors. Why is this important in leadership? Because in dealing with other people, our understanding of the invisible processes going on inside ourselves and others will help explain the visible manifestations of behaviors that affect teamwork and productivity. Furthermore, we have some control over the flow of these chemicals by intervening in the feedback loop systems. In this article, I will outline the leadership- and relationship-relevant functions of several important hormones, and provide some practical tips on how to influence biochemistry for more positive effects. I will go through the substances one-by-one, but with the caveat that this is a greatly simplified version of a highly complex, interconnected process. These bio-chemicals interact with each other and with other body chemicals in ways that are still not fully understood—but scientists have produced some insightful and useful knowledge in recent years that make this both an interesting and helpful topic for review.

Aside from the bonding and trust hormone oxytocin (which is technically a neurohypophysial peptide, but we’ll spare you the dizzying technical terms and call all of these chemicals “hormones”), there are three other significant hormones associated with happiness, well-being, and positive social interactions among humans: serotonin, dopamine, and endorphins. They all have multiple functions in the body, but include significant influences on our ability to socialize with other people, set and pursue goals, and generally improve ourselves and the human condition. Complicating the picture are at least two chemicals that can interfere with, counteract, or in some not yet fully understood ways negatively influence the pro-social effects of the “happiness hormones”: testosterone and cortisol. Let’s take a closer look at each of these influences on our emotions and behaviors.


Hormones of Happiness and Well-Being

Oxytocin – The Bonding and Trust Hormone


Picture source:

Imaging that you are playing a game with another person, a stranger. You are an “investor” who has been given 12 dollars. You can keep all that money for yourself, or you can “invest” any part, from nothing up to all of it, with that stranger, a “trustee,” who was also given 12 dollars at the start of the game. When you give over that money to the trustee, the amount triples as it goes into his account. Now, that trustee can decide to send any amount from his account back to you, from nothing at all, up to his entire account. At the end of this game, you get to keep whatever you kept for yourself of the 12 dollars, PLUS whatever the trustee returns back to you. The trustee gets to keep whatever he has that he did not give back to you. If you don’t trust him with any money, you get 12 dollars, and he gets 12 dollars (unless he was REALLY generous and gave you money even if you didn’t invest with him). But if you gave him some money, and he returns some to you, you could both be much better off than just 12 dollars each. The dilemma for you, as the investor, is whether to trust that this complete stranger will return your original investment and go even further to return at least some of the increased amount…this is why it is called the trust game. The more trust you give, the more the overall system benefits by increased money available…but will you get your “fair share” of the increase?


A team of scientists performed this game as an experiment, with the added twist of measuring and administering oxytocin to participants, publishing the results in a paper in 2005. Their work established a strong link between oxytocin and trust. They found that the trustee, receiving money as a sign of trust, caused the brain to produce oxytocin. Additionally, the amount of oxytocin produced accurately predicted trustworthiness of the trustee in returning money back to the investor. When they had the investor players inhale synthetic oxytocin, those players trusted the strangers with 17% more money and were twice as likely to send their entire amount of money to the trustee.

Oxytocin was first recognized for its role in women, specifically involved with giving birth and nursing. A mother just after giving birth has her system flooded with the chemical, and infant-mother interaction of gazing, touching, or suckling activates oxytocin’s role in starting milk flow into the breast. Upon further investigation, scientists found that it appeared to play a role in creating an emotional bond between mother and child as well, and that even fathers were influenced by oxytocin when gazing into the eyes and playing with their children, which increased bonding interaction and commitment to the offspring. It appears that oxytocin lowers our fears and anxieties associated with trusting other people, and subsequent research has shown that it increases our empathy toward others.

So, if oxytocin is the “trust hormone,” why don’t we just spray a few squirts into our noses to create an empathetic, loving world? Because it’s not that simple, and the functions of oxytocin are complex and still not fully understood. In fact, administering oxytocin to some people may have the opposite effect, particularly if they are naturally distrustful of outsiders. Another interesting study showed that oxytocin increases the behavior of lying, if the subject felt lying would benefit their in-group, while another study found that it increased negative feelings of sons toward their mothers’ parenting styles IF they were experiencing anxiety in their present relationships with other people.

Nevertheless, scientists have shown that oxytocin levels are associated with higher trust and social bonding. At the least, it appears to make the brain more aware of social cues. People with higher levels of oxytocin, particularly a certain genetic version of it, showed in one study more trustworthy behaviors that signaled kindness to strangers, such as nodding the head in empathy, making eye contact, reflecting a sincere smile, or displaying open body posture. Displaying trustworthy behaviors increases oxytocin in the recipients in a positive feedback loop. Psychiatrist Shawn Achor, in his excellent book The Happiness Advantage, explains, “When we make a positive social connection, the pleasure-inducing hormone oxytocin is released into our bloodstream, immediately reducing anxiety and improving concentration and focus.”[1] It’s clear that increased oxytocin is linked to more positive social relationships—but it doesn’t act alone. In fact, very recent research has found that it has a close relationship with the next hormone in our list, serotonin.

Serotonin – The Significance and Pride Hormone


Serotonin is a versatile hormone that humans share with many other animals, including worms and sea slugs! 80% of a human’s serotonin is produced in our digestive system, and it plays a large role in regulating appetite; but as anyone who has been snapped at by a hungry colleague who missed lunch, it is heavily implicated in general mood as well. It works in concert with many other hormones and body chemicals, making its functions wide-ranging. In fact, abnormal levels of serotonin have been associated with…are you ready… addictions, attention deficit disorder, chronic pain, depression, dysthymia, eating disorders, headache, obsessive-compulsive disorders, panic, poor impulse control, post-traumatic stress disorders, premenstrual syndrome, sleep disorders, stress disorders, sudden cardiac death and violence. Whew!

On the positive side, it appears to help regulate our moods as well as appetites, bringing emotional stability, reduced anxiety, tranquility and focus. Serotonin increases in ourselves, and those attached to us, when we feel proud, such as when we have done something significant and important. The child performing well on her first piano recital shares a shot of serotonin while her proud parents in the audience also experience the same serotonin surge. Leaders in animal packs, and human leaders, have been found to have elevated levels of serotonin, which gives them confidence and contributes to an aura of leadership. A pair of UCLA scientists, Michael McGuire and Michael Raleigh, conducted a study of the social order of vervet monkeys, finding that those higher up in the hierarchy had nearly twice as much serotonin in their blood. When a challenger replaced one of these leaders, the winner’s serotonin levels shot up, while the loser’s levels fell precipitously. The serotonin-leader connection wasn’t limited to monkeys, McGuire and Raleigh found. Sampling UCLA fraternity boys, the officer leaders had about 25% higher levels of serotonin than regular members.

Serotonin levels were higher in leaders of vervet monkey groups and in fraternity officers in studies by UCLA scientists.
At the same time that serotonin is associated with leadership, it has a pro-social effect that seems to prevent more leaders from being out-of-control dictators. In its regulating function, it suppresses our primitive impulses, such as violence, or aggressive feeding and sex. That’s why it has been involved in prescriptive drugs of choice for several decades now that regulate abnormal or violent behavior. Another study of monkeys found that those serotonin-loaded leaders displayed fewer acts of aggression or violence against others, whereas the lower-ranking members with low serotonin tended to act more aggressively. The leaders, bolstered by the confidence that comes with the serotonin abundance, could maintain their position more with their aura of self-assuredness than with violence. In the same way, human leaders, with the elevated serotonin levels, appear to be able to remain more calm and self-confident, and experience lower levels of the stress hormone, cortisol. Serotonin, like the bonding and trust hormone oxytocin with which it interacts, fuels a positive loop feedback system, in which higher levels give more pride and confidence, which makes it easier to accomplish significant acts, which injects more serotonin. Both serotonin and oxytocin may be triggering our brain’s reward systems, and two of the other hormones, dopamine and endorphins, are great at giving our bodies rewards.

Happiness and Bliss:

Dopamine – The Goal Reaching and Reward Hormone

Endorphins – The Pushing Through Pain Hormone


Dopamine gives us that satisfying, almost addicting pleasurable feeling when we strive for a goal and achieve it. Its effect is closely related to the pride effect from serotonin. Dopamine and serotonin can give us competitive advantages in life. As positive psychologist advocate Shawn Achor explains, “Positive emotions flood our brains with dopamine and serotonin, chemicals that not only make us feel good, but dial up the learning centers of our brains to higher levels. They help us organize new information, keep that information in the brain longer, and retrieve it faster later on. And they enable us to make and sustain more neural connections, which allows us to think more quickly and creatively, become more skilled at complex analysis and problem solving, and see and invent new ways of doing things.”[2]

Dopamine influences and motivates us with the promise of its pleasure. Without sufficient levels of dopamine, we tend to procrastinate, lose self-confidence, and generally lack enthusiasm for making and achieving goals. With dopamine, we strive harder, we have more energy, and are generally happier…at least for a while. The downside of dopamine, as well as endorphins, is that their positive effects tend to be short-lived in the body.

Endorphins don’t motivate so much as help us push through pain to reach a goal, so that we can get that dopamine rush. Endorphins are released into our system when we’re experiencing pain or stress, and they act to suppress our perception of pain. If you’ve ever done a long-distance run and experienced a “second wind” of energy, or perhaps pushed through a rough day at the office and found energy picking up later in the day, you may be experiencing the effects of endorphins.

Complicating Components:

Testosterone – The Assertiveness & Competitiveness Hormone

Cortisol – The Stress Hormone


I hesitate to call our final two actors, testosterone and cortisol, the “bad guys,” because the picture is more complicated than just good or bad chemicals; but these two can both have counter-acting effects that work against the positive social influences of the hormones discussed above. They aren’t all bad in their effects. Testosterone, in the right amounts, spurs people on in competition and achieving physically demanding tasks. One study of indigenous people in the Amazon forest showed that successful hunters experienced a surge of testosterone after a kill, which not only gave them an elated feeling of success, but also chemically accelerated muscle regeneration. Testosterone also has an effect similar to serotonin, in giving one a feeling of confidence that can have positive impacts on work performance. On the downside, however, testosterone is associated with anti-social behaviors of aggression. It may have an effect of inhibiting oxytocin (although the interaction is not yet completely understood). One study that administered synthetic testosterone to a group of men found that those men were less generous toward others as well as more demanding.

Cortisol has an even greater inhibiting effect on oxytocin, as well as inducing other negative physical effects associated with stress. Cortisol is actually a “survival” hormone that helps people who are in physical danger, which is when it is released by the body. Cortisol causes that anxious, but alert, feeling you get when you feel threatened, and causes many physical changes, such as increased heart and breathing rate, and re-direction of internal energy stores, that prepare your body for “fight or flight.” The problem with cortisol, however, is that it can cause long-term ill effects, and it doesn’t discriminate well between real physical dangers and perceived threats such as work-pressure stress that doesn’t require the “fight or flight” response. It can lead to high blood pressure, a suppressed immune system (because your immune system isn’t required in a “fight or flight” scenario), and interference with oxytocin. This means that when we feel stressed or threatened at work, we experience less of the trust- and bond-building effects of oxytocin, and we act less team-oriented.

Managing Your Chemistry

The good news is that there are ways to manage this multitudinous mixture of biochemicals  to increase our trust, leadership potential, and well-being…we can make inputs to improve the feedback loops. The following are specific actions we can take, associated with the main hormone to be affected:

To Increase Oxytocin

  • Initiate trust. Just like in the Trust game, when we take the first step in extending trust to another, we generate oxytocin in them. It can be risky, but worthwhile.
  • Extend friendship and be generous. When we acknowledge people in our social circle, and are generous with time and resources, we show trust that increases oxytocin.
  • Exhibit trustworthy physical behaviors: engaged listening with head nods, eye contact, sincere smiling, and using an open body posture.

To Increase Serotonin

  • Contemplate significance in your work. Link your work to its larger positive effects, and take pride in your contribution.
  • Practice gratitude and reflect on past accomplishments regularly. Try writing a diary of “Three Thankfuls” at the end of every day, acknowledging three situations or relationships for which you are grateful.
  • Get fresh air and sun, which promotes serotonin production.
  • Eat a proper diet. According to Dr. Judith J. Wurtman, serotonin in the brain can be made only after sweet or starchy carbohydrates are eaten. This is because the building block of serotonin in the brain, a chemical called tryptophan, cannot pass through the body-brain barrier if certain amino acids are more numerous, and eating sweet or starchy foods clears those obstacles. Another reason to maintain good nutrition is the energy consumption of the brain itself—it’s only 2% of body weight, but consumes 20% of glucose (sugars) in the body, and it can’t store the glucose for later use. If the brain isn’t getting energy, it will go into its own survival mode that’s not conducive to productivity or positive social interaction.

To Increase Dopamine

  • Set a series of progressive goals to get increments of dopamine rushes. Take a little time to celebrate accomplishments.
  • Recognize achievements of team members and direct reports.

To Increase Endorphins

  • Regular exercise provides a good source of stress that results in endorphin release. This also has the added benefit of lowering cortisol levels.
  • Scientists have shown that laughter can release endorphins and have positive physical effects. Those funny animal videos on YouTube aren’t all wasted time (in moderation, of course)!
  • Inhale aromas such as vanilla, lavender, or eat foods such as dark chocolate or capsicum (spicy peppers).

To Decrease Cortisol and Get the Positive Effects of Testosterone

  • Power Pose—making a confident posture pose for 2 minutes. Although there is a vigorous debate on the science behind this, Dr. Amy Cuddy’s 2012 TED talk on “Your body language shapes who you are,” viewed nearly 40 million times, argues that making a confident posture regularly for two minutes increases confidence through raised testosterone levels and lowered cortisol levels.

Dr. Amy Cuddy demonstrates a “Power Pose” that gives biofeedback to your body, lowering cortisol and boosting testosterone.
The fields of medicine, psychology, neuroscience, and economics that inform us about our bodies and the influences of biological chemicals is changing and advancing at an exciting pace. The above discussion has summarized some of the more significant findings of the relation of hormones and other chemicals to our social behaviors. Leaders don’t need to be biological scientists to be effective, but a basic understanding of those internal processes going on inside of us and the people with whom we interact will benefit our ability to inspire and lead!

Copyright © 2017 by Robert Cummings All rights reserved.

[1] Sean Achor, The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology the Fuel Success and Performance at Work, New York: Crown Business, 2010, p. 177.

[2] Ibid, p. 44.

A Little Grit


“I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”  – Michael Jordan

Michael Jordan is not only observing how success comes from failure…he’s describing “Grit.”

Psychologist Angela Duckworth, author of Grit, studied several categories of people who persevered through difficulties and succeeded, including West Point cadets. She found that the characteristic of “grit” was much more important than factors like intelligence or even natural talent. She finds that “gritty people” have four traits: Interest, Practice, Purpose, and Hope.


This means becoming interested in something and developing it into a passion, so that even after years of doing it, you still find it interesting.  Be careful of falling into the trap of just “following your passion.” If your passion is binge-watching Netflix series, you’re not likely to be successful…find something worthwhile that interests you and develop the passion. Dr. Duckworth suggest that to keep from getting bored, gritty people substitute “nuance” for “novelty”—they see little ways to tweak what they are passionate about to make it as close to perfect as possible.


Practice for gritty people means “Deliberate practice.” Anders Ericsson, author of Peak, says deliberate practice is using good feedback to focus on specific techniques that will lead to real improvement. In other words, deliberate practice fully engages the mind and the body, and pushes to the limit. You may have heard of the “10-year, 10,000 hour” rule, made well-known by author Malcom Gladwell in his book Outliers. He contends that it takes 10,000 hours of effortful practice, which would take someone about 10 years, to really master a craft to a top level.


Finding a purpose means connecting the work that you’re passionate about to other people—teammates, workmates, family, friends, local society, your nation. Rarely do things done for purely selfish motives sustain lifelong grittiness. It’s contribution to causes greater than ourselves that make effort sustainable.


According to Dr. Duckworth, things will inevitably discourage or deter even gritty people. Hope is required to keep at something even when obstacles get in the way…successful people are optimistic and proactive, with the attitude that their efforts make a difference.

If you’d like to see how gritty you are, take Dr. Duckworth’s 12-question grittiness test.

You can see Angela’s TED talk at Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance.  (It’s been viewed over 10.3 million times).

She also has an interesting interview on one of my favorite podcasts, Freakonomics Radio,

Are your intentions paving the road to purgatory or to positive action?

For people to trust you, they must perceive that you have good intentions. Try these three methods to pave a road of good intentions to increased trust.

For people to trust you, they must perceive that you have good intentions.

In the breakdown of the components of Trust—Character, consisting of Integrity and Intent, and Competence, consisting of Capability and Results—Intent forms the trunk of a tree. It springs up from the underground roots, partially hidden underground, but rising visibly above ground to support the Competence components.


Illustration based on Stephen M. R. Covey’s Speed of Trust

From the viewpoint of others, behavior is visible, but intention is mostly invisible; therefore, people tend to judge our behavior and interpret it by assigning whatever intent they think that we have. When our behavior doesn’t meet expectations, they may easily assign bad intentions to us…but there are probably not many of us who believe that we ever have bad intentions! Ancient Jewish sage Solomon observed this when he said, “All the ways of a man are clean in his own sight, but the Lord weighs the motives.” A saying recorded in the US in 1885 explained, “It is not strange that we overestimate ourselves as compared with others, we judge others by their doings, but ourselves by our intentions.”[1] Whether other people fairly or unfairly judge our intent, or whether or not we actually have intentions as pure as we think, it is nevertheless a key component of trust. Fortunately, there are ways to improve our own intentions, and to communicate them so that we can increase levels of trust as leaders.

The Role of Intent in Trust

As last year’s US presidential campaign was picking up with the summer heat, FBI director James Comey made a shocking and controversial announcement about an investigation into candidate Hillary Clinton’s use of a private e-mail server in her official position as Secretary of State. Comey stated, “Although there is evidence of potential violations of the statutes regarding the handling of classified information, our judgment is that no reasonable prosecutor would bring such a case…. There are obvious considerations, like the strength of the evidence, especially regarding intent [emphasis added].”In other words, the director was saying that Clinton’s behavior could be excused because there was lack of a bad intent. For Clinton’s political opponents, this did not sit well! Many tended to assign an ill-intent to Clinton’s actions, and thus strongly opposed the lack of charges. An ABC/Washington Post poll after that announcement found that 56% of those polled disagreed with the FBI, while some speculated that Comey himself had hidden intentions. This likely had an effect on trust in the institution, as a poll in December 2016 found that a mere 32% of adults had a “great deal”/ “quite a bit” of confidence in the FBI. The deterioration of trust in institutions based on perception of intent also affected the press. Not long after the FBI announcement, Gallup released poll results exclaiming, “Americans’ Trust in Mass Media Sinks to New Low.” Specifically, and largely driving the drop, Republicans’ (who mostly opposed Hillary) trust of the media dropped from 32% to merely 14% in just one year. Why? Largely because they assigned a nefarious intent to the media, feeling that most of the reporters wanted to bolster Clinton and denigrate their candidate, including the business with the FBI investigation. This is not to say that Hillary Clinton truly had bad intentions regarding her actions with a private server, or that reporters were intentionally producing biased reports—the point is that the perception of the intent by that particular group assigned negative intent, resulting in a lack of trust.


Hillary Clinton and FBI Director James Comey. Source: Getty Images

We can understand what we mean by “intent” by looking at how it is defined in criminal law, but applying it to everyday life. Courts will look at both intent and action when investigating a crime. The consequences of a person’s actions–for example someone getting injured during the course of a robbery–are judged to have been intended if the suspect could have reasonably foreseen the consequences and desired the action to happen. Intent can further be broken down into direct intent, which means that one directly intends the particular consequence of an act, and oblique intent–a consequence occurs as a result of a voluntary act that one could foresee. The intent behind our own actions, having nothing to do with criminal cases (we hope), can be broken down in the same way. Unlike other animals, driven almost entirely by simple stimulus and response, humans have the ability to project themselves and their actions into future scenarios, mindfully weighing possible outcomes. Based on that mindful consideration, we establish a desire to carry out a specific action.


Unfortunately, we may not always get the consequence that we want…as the saying goes, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” The saying has come to mean that one can have excellent intentions, but actions from those intentions may not have the desired effect. Some have applied the phrase to government programs, such as those trying to eliminate poverty, which had opposite effects. On a personal level, many who have dealt with a friend or family member with an addiction problem have experienced good intentions leading to bad results.  Whether by refraining from words or actions out of respect for privacy, or by trying to step in and force the addict to some action, good intentions can easily backfire with undesired results. Stephen M. R. Covey says in his book The Speed of Trust that motives of genuine caring are most effective for building trust. One test of a good leader is one who asks, “How’s your day going?” and then really listens and cares about the answer. But as the saying about good intentions and the road to hell remind us, motives of genuine caring need to pay attention to the actual results. When the leader listens with genuine concern about a subordinate’s response, the proof of that concern comes in the response, whether caring words or real assistance in dealing with challenges. With thoughtful consideration to all possible outcomes of our intended actions, we pave the road not to Hades, but to improvement of the individual.


Another aspect of the connection of intent and trust comes from Simon Sinek’s concept of “starting with why.” In one of the most viewed TED talks (filmed in September 2009 and currently with over 31 million views!), based on his book Start with Why, Sinek argues that companies, organizations and individuals motivate people to action by starting with explaining why they do things, rather than what they do or how they do it. He gives a biological explanation for the effectiveness, that motivation for action penetrates deeply beyond our analytical brain (the cortex) into our more primitive brain (the limbic system), which is closer to emotions such as trust and loyalty. To put this another way, we get people to trust by convincing them of our intent—the motivating force behind our own actions. Sinek gives the example of how Apple has successfully shown game-changing leadership in personal computers, personal music players, and mobile phones by first explaining their reason for existence—challenging the status quo, thinking differently, empowering the individual. That is their intent, and it connects to consumers to make them feel Apple is authentic, a company they can trust. When we explain the “why,” it connects people to our values and beliefs, and people trust others that share similar values and beliefs.  It is similar to why we connect to people from our home regions, or why Mazda Miata owners form worldwide clubs. Just recently I met someone who had lived in my home state of Indiana; even though we were halfway around the world from there, and had just met, we immediately shared a common bond, and my first instinct was to trust this person. Of course, not everyone who we perceive to share the same values and beliefs will be trustworthy in the end, but the default reaction is trust. People will not give their trust if they suspect intentions, but explaining the “why,” or intentions, can generate trust.

GetamacApple gains trust by communicating the “why,” or intent of their business, which is about challenging the status quo (represented by the suited, older man) and empowering the individual (the casually-dressed younger man). Source:

Getting from Intent to Action to Trust

In order to build trust through intent, we can work on three areas.

  1. Examining our own intent with the “Five Whys”

The first step to ensure our intent generates trust is to look inward. The Toyota corporation instituted a method for analyzing the root cause of incidents known as the “Five Whys.” As implied, it means taking some problem, such as a failure of an electrical system, and asking a series of “why” questions about the reason for failure. For example, the answer to “why did the electrical system fail?” might be because the fuse failed. Then one asks, “why did the fuse fail?” answered by “it was the wrong specification.” Then, “why was it the wrong specification?” and so forth and so on, until one finds the single cause that, if corrected, prevents the undesired result. Five is not a “magic” number for the number of iterations; it may take less or more questions to get to the root cause, and you may follow several tracks of “why” questions for the same issue.

Although they were concerned about fixing assembly line problems, we can apply the same method to our intentions. It’s important to start with your own intentions in this exercise, and not on solving a problem…you can use a separate process of Five Whys to solve a problem. Perhaps you are a leader in an employment service firm, and are considering demoting an employee who is in charge of handling clients’ job applications.  You would first start by asking,

  • “Why do I want to demote this person?”
  • Perhaps it’s because “she works slower than her colleagues.”
  • “Why do I think I should demote because of slow work?”
  • “Because the company depends on servicing as many clients as possible, and her slow work is affecting profitability.”
  • “If my intention is to increase profitability, why is demoting an employee helpful?”
  • “Because I believe employees not meeting standards should have consequences.”
  • “Why do I think she is not meeting standards…does she not know the standard, is she unable to meet the standard, or is she refusing to meet the standard?”

At this point you might investigate the actual problem of not meeting the standard.

  • “Why is she slower than her colleagues?”
  • “Because the clients are not cooperating with her in their employment applications.”
  • “Why are the clients not cooperating?”
  • “Because the male clients are not respecting her position as a woman”

In this case, you might find that your intention of disciplining someone that you perceive to be not meeting standards could be better replaced by addressing problems of sexism that are affecting your company. Focusing on the root intent–respecting your workers and ensuring company profitability—will build trust and avoid bad decisions. This example, by the way, comes from a recent real-life experience of a couple of employees of a Philadelphia company, whose little social experiment of switching male and female signature blocks exposed a potential sexism problem, which you can read about at Huffington Post.

  1. Plan, Believe, Monitor

When we intend to do something, such as exercise for our health, we sometimes don’t follow through with our intentions, which can negatively affect our trust in ourselves as well as the trust of others. A team of researchers studied a group of patients who were recovering from coronary heart disease and were put on an exercise program to recover their health. Their study found that those who best closed the “Intention-Behavior gap” were those who made a plan for their exercise, who believed they were in control, and who monitored their own progress.[2] Believing that we have significant influence over the outcomes of our intentions, called self-efficacy, is an important aspect of fulfilling our potential. We may intend to do many great things, or even small things, but we risk failing on carrying out our intentions if we tend to have an attitude that blames outside factors, rather than firmly believing that we are in charge. With this positive attitude, we monitor our effort and performance against standards we set in the planning process.

In my thirties, I felt that I had really let my physical fitness fall to an unacceptable level. I determined (made an intent) to get back in shape, and made a plan to run my first marathon. It was a daunting task, and I made this decision less than four months before the event, but I convinced myself I could do it. I kept an Excel spreadsheet of my daily mileage (there were no helpful exercise apps back then!), and monitored my effort (how many days per week I was training) and performance (how my pace was improving). Successfully completing the 26 mile run greatly boosted my self-trust, and demonstrated to others that I could follow through on intended action.

  1. Communicate

Stephen M. R. Covey recommends “declaring your intent” as a way to improve the intent component of trust. He observes that communicating your intent “‘signals your behavior’ – it lets people know what to look for so that they can recognize, understand, and acknowledge it when they see it.”[3] This is the equivalent of Simon Sinek’s admonition to “start with why.” As a leader, we may have to implement policies that are unpopular with the troops, but if we can get the troops to trust that we have the best intentions, they will follow. Explaining the “why” of doing something helps establish trust, much more than explaining the what or how.

In the military, when a plan for an operation is announced, it always includes a “Commander’s Intent.” According to the official publication of the US armed forces, “Commander’s intent is a clear and concise expression of the purpose of the operation and the military end state.”[4] With this statement, all the people involved in the operation know and trust the overall objective, and can confidently carry out their duties. When you give your “commander’s intent,” you engender the trust of your colleagues and followers, and pave the path with good intentions toward their success!

Copyright © 2017 by Robert Cummings All rights reserved.

[1] Edward Wigglesworth. Reflections. Boston, Massachusetts: Press of George H. Ellis. P. 10. (Available on Google Books Full View)

[2] Falko F. Sniehotta, Urte Scholz, & Ralf Schwarzer, “Bridging the intention–behaviour gap: Planning, self-efficacy, and action control in the adoption and maintenance of physical exercise”

[3] Stephen M. R. Covey, The Speed of Trust, New York: Free Press, 2006, p. 87.`

[4] US Joint Chiefs of Staff (2010) Joint Publication 3-0 – Joint Operations. March 2010. Available at:

Nurturing the Roots of Trust: 2 Practical Methods to Strengthen Integrity

Trust is like a forest, requiring years of nourishment and care to produce its benefits, but vulnerable to careless acts. Integrity forms the roots of trust, and can be built with these practical activities.


“Only you can prevent forest fires!” Smokey Bear’s wise counsel stands as one of the most successful public service campaigns in US history. From the time the campaign started in 1944 (the first year featuring the Disney figure Bambi), forest acreage lost due to fires declined from 22 million to 6.5 million annually. Smokey became a cultural icon, emphasizing individual responsibility for protecting natural resources. Smokey’s advice can easily apply to trust—“Only you can prevent burning down trust!” Trust is like a forest, taking committed effort and time to grow and yield fruits…but vulnerable to even one careless match. Fortunately, even fire-ravaged forests can be regrown, just as trust can be re-established, but it is much better to avoid destructive actions. Burning down trust is preventable, and building trust is achievable, through individual responsibility and action. Previously, I introduced Stephen M. R. Covey’s concept of trust as a tree, rooted in character components of integrity and intent, with competence producing trust through capability and results. In this article we’ll explore the roots, with two practical ways to strengthen our integrity.

Tree illustration based on Stephen M. R. Covey’s Speed of Trust


The word integrity comes from a Latin root meaning “whole” or “complete.” When we speak of the “integrity” of a ship, we mean that it is seaworthy, that its structure is uncorrupted, complete and without leaks…it is exactly as it needs to be to function as a ship. When we speak of the “integrity” of a person, we often equate it with being honest; but integrity in the sense of being complete or whole is a bigger concept than just honesty. Just like we depend on the integrity of a ship to keep us afloat, we depend on the integrity of others to be who they say they are. It includes the idea that a person always speaks and acts consistently with their values. In The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Covey’s father, Stephen R. Covey, said that “Integrity…is simply this: you treat everyone by the same set of principles,” and this includes applying the same set of principles to yourself.

What NOT to do


  • Double standards for you and your workers
  • Inconsistent treatment based on status
  • Picking favorites

What are ways that leaders erode their integrity? It’s easy, as one rises in an organization, to think it’s time to take advantage of the privileges of being the boss, and to use a double standard for direct reports. A boss might think it’s a privilege to come in later to work, or take longer lunch breaks, or to be more “flexible” on deadlines, for example, while being strict on direct reports. Another area might be inconsistency between treatment of different people depending on their relative status, perhaps being polite to higher ranking people, but rude with others. We can estimate people’s integrity by observing how differently they treat others who can’t bring them immediate advantage versus those who can. Another killer of integrity is showing favoritism to a select group of people. I’ve been in several flying squadrons with an “in” clique—squadron members who shared social ties or appeared to have an inside track to the boss’s office that others didn’t enjoy. It appeared to many squadron members that the leader inconsistently treated “in” and “out” groups. When actions are disconnected from expressed principles, such as fairness, integrity is broken. But there are concrete measures that we can take to maintain our integrity.

Showing favoritism destroys the integrity between principle and action.                       Source

2 Practical Ways to Build Integrity

1. Articulate Your Principles

Because integrity includes acting consistently in accordance with our values, the first step should be to clearly define our principles. We all have beliefs and values that guide our daily behavior, whether we articulate them or not. An easy way to identify our values is to take an honest look at how we spend our time. Do we choose binging on Netflix series over cleaning the dinner dishes or improving some skill? Do we flip through our mobile phone news feeds during meetings rather than contributing to the team? Our underlying values heavily influence even the most mundane daily behaviors; therefore, it benefits us greatly to carefully identify those values. Good character starts with careful self-examination—our beliefs, values, and behaviors—both as they currently are and as we would like them to be.

If a biographer were to record your legacy in just one paragraph, what would she write? What characteristics and principles of behavior would you like to be remembered for by others? In The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Dr. Covey uses a technique when discussing the second habit, “Begin with the end in mind,” by having the reader imagine his or her own funeral, and visualizing what family, friends, co-workers, and others would say in a eulogy.  The point is to use this perspective– examining your life as if you were an observer from the outside–to help you construct your principles for personal life and work. Many of us work for companies that articulate their values in mission and value statements, posted on their websites and around worksites. How many of us have taken the time to do the same for our own personal life?

Companies like Chevron display their values publicly…have you articulated your own personal values?  Source

Activity: Write your own Guiding Principles for Personal Life

What to Do: List and describe the fundamental principles you want to use to guide your day-to-day actions.

Tips on How to Do It:

  1. Consider what people will remember about you after you have passed on.
    1. What character traits would you like to be known for?
    2. What contribution to your family, friends, and society do you want to be known for?
    3. What significant achievement would you like to be known for?
  2. This is not a goal statement, but a list of principles for you to live by in order to fulfill your purpose and achieve your goals.
  3. You can use inspirational quotes, sayings, or spiritual sources.
  4. Make it personal with specific principles that will guide your behavior.
  5. Use an active verb.


I will

Go All In. Strive to be excellent in everything I do.

Maintain Integrity Always. Be honest to myself and others.

Respect People. Treat everyone with respect, no matter their social or economic status.

Empathize. Try to see the world as others see it, understand them, and to the extent I can, help them.

Contribute to Fulfill Potential. Help people to reach their God-given potential. Be a force for good that leaves people and the environment better due to my interaction.

Have Courage. Do the right thing, take charge of and responsibility for the things that I can control.

Forbear. Be patient with myself, with others, and challenges in life. Recognize and accept with peace and gratitude things that are not in my control to change.

Seek Wisdom. Pursue wisdom relentlessly. Rely on God and His principles to know what is the right way to think and act in each life situation.

Earn My Way. Never take things that I haven’t earned and never take unfair advantage of others.

Practice Humility. Never think or do things that belong to God alone. Never judge other people, never take revenge.

Be Friendly. Make friends by being a friend.

Keep Balanced Perspective on Material Things. Never cry over anything that can’t cry over me. Take care of possessions and not be wasteful, but never let property be more important than people.

Be Tough, Yet Love. Have tough skin and a soft heart. Never let what other people think negatively affect me and never be naïve to other people’s possible bad intentions, but be ready to love and forgive.

Plan, Review, and Improve. Be responsible to plan my life. Avoid procrastination or wasting time, talent or resources. Analyze every endeavor and dig deep for lessons learned from each success or failure. Improve myself constantly.

Stay Fit. Balance life for spiritual, mental, emotional and physical health. Exercise regularly in each of these areas.

Create and Learn. Always look to create and learn new things. Prioritize learning over simply being entertained.

Be Thankful in All Things

We should review our principles frequently. To be able to “walk your talk,” we need to have our values at the “top of our minds.” Principles are what we desire to be…not necessarily what we have already achieved. We must not be discouraged when we don’t live up to the principles constantly—no one has perfect integrity and congruity between what they want to be and what they are. We can, however, consistently remind ourselves of our values and practice staying committed to them.

2. Practice Making Commitments to Oneself and Keeping Them


“The only thing humans have that everybody is born with is the ability to keep their word or not keep their word.” – Former SEAL Thom Shea. SEAL training, like the exhausting team boat-carrying exercise pictured, gives many opportunities to commit to one’s word. Source


In one of the physically and mentally toughest training programs in the world, US Navy SEALs are given numerous opportunities to make a commitment and stick to it. Former Navy SEAL Thom Shea, now head of a leadership training organization Andamantine Alliance, says, “The only thing humans have that everybody is born with is the ability to keep their word or not keep their word.”[1]  By making a commitment to ourselves, and keeping it, we build our own confidence and self-trust; if we can’t trust ourselves, it is very difficult to expect others to trust us. Shea gives a small assignment to his high performance executive and athlete clients to drive home this point: he challenges them to do 5 squats, 5 pushups, and 5 sit-ups right before going to bed and as soon as getting up in the morning, for seven days straight. This little exercise obviously isn’t about getting in shape…no one will get a six-pack, SEAL body with that regimen…but it’s a mental self-discipline tool that works the self-will like a muscle that grows stronger by practice. (By the way, of the approximately 150 people to whom he’s given this assignment, only eleven have been able to do it perfectly).

Shea summarizes the US Navy SEAL culture in two basic principles: Honor Your Word and Don’t Quit. Making a commitment to oneself and following through with it brings together our own words and actions, giving us more completeness, or wholeness–Integrity. Stephen M. R. Covey, in his book The Speed of Trust, makes four good points to be successful in this tactic of building integrity through making self-commitments.

4 Tips for Making Self-commitments

  1. First, he warns against making too many self-commitments. We may set up many goals in our lives, but a real commitment is more serious than a goal, and should be carefully considered before making. Choose some commitments that are very important to you, or that help you practice self-discipline, such as Shea’s exercise commitment mentioned above, and concentrate on following through.
  2. Second, give self-commitments the same weight as commitments that you give to others. Don’t think that you can blow off a commitment just because no one else is making you accountable for it. Otherwise, you won’t gain the trust in yourself.
  3. Third, don’t commit to something impulsively or in the spur of the moment. We may overdo something, such as eating a big meal, and impetuously say “I’m NEVER going to do that again,” when we know that it’s not all that reasonable to make such a commitment. Save commitments for the big, important stuff.
  4. Fourth, when commitments become hard to keep, which most inevitably will, change your behavior to honor the commitment, rather than lowering values to match the behavior.

It takes time and effort to compose our own life principle statement, and self-commitments are not that easy to make and keep. We need to exercise the character traits of humility to accept failures and courage to keep going forward. But the reward in the end is increased personal integrity, which increases self-trust, which increases trust with others. By following these two practices, we protect that precious forest of trust…remember, only you can prevent forest fires!

Copyright © 2017 by Robert Cummings All rights reserved.

[1] Thom Shea, interview with Richard Rierson, Dose of Leadership podcast, 24 February 2017.