Does It Ever Make Sense for a Leader to Strain?


Two quick public service announcements before today’s thoughts.

  1. On Newsweek’s “My Turn” page today, you’ll find a “letter to my son Jack” that I wrote in response to their cover story last week about the “Beached White Male.” I’d love to hear what you think.  And if you find it worth sharing, please do so. Hint: Parents with boys, including adult boys, might appreciate it.

2.  Today, in collaboration with three people-institutions I admire, I am launching a new website, The site is dedicated to exploring the ways in which changes in education, work and family are affecting boys and men, and the opportunity that men have to grow, change, and contribute in meaningful new ways. If you or others are interested in this discussion, please take a look at today’s first roll-out and come back as we frequently enrich the site. Onward…

My friend Patty sent me an email last week saying she enjoys RFL every week, but confessing that she often forgets to do what I’ve suggested.  Then Linda Abar told me I misquoted her last week.  Ouch.  I wrote about how Linda, my voice teacher, was teaching me how great singing is improved by practicing a “drunk tongue” which loosens up your jaw.  I wrote that good parent-boss leadership is similarly loose, not strained, not fearful, not fighting.  She agreed.  So, what did I get wrong?

Linda said, “singing never involves strain,” while I had implied that it has to do with modulating how you strain.  It made me wonder:  So strain is never good?  I pushed back – not about singing, cuz she’s forgotten more than I’ll never know about that.  But how about golf: there’s a lot of truth to ease, no strain, but Tiger and those guys swing hard.  I think they strain.  Sprinters strain at the end, don’t they? Don’t editors push at the end? In leading don’t you stretch yourself and your team some?

Linda held firm. She didn’t know golf, but said, “Is it strain? You’re stretching muscles. There’s a firm grip. But are you straining?” What do YOU think?  What would the best golf, tennis, running, editing, conducting coaches say about strain?  Despite my arguments, I think Linda’s right – about just about anything. Yes, sometimes there’s urgency, an emergency, a need for a last minute push. But I think it’s super rare – if ever – that we need to strain.  Instead, we do it out of fear, and in the end we work against ourselves.

So, if you’re like Patty who forgets to try my wacky ideas out, here’s some mental cues to use when you feel like straining, yelling, knee-jerking, squashing someone, raising your voice, panicking, sending an email or proposal before you really think it’s right:


* Breathe.  3 Counts in.  3 counts holding. 3 counts on the out breath.

* Ask: Am I doing this out of fear or trust?

* Ask: Will it promote others’ empowerment or deflate them?

* Ask:  Can I do the same thing but with ease, and thus

Lead with your best self,


  • Amazing. You’re one of the resources who pretty much weighs in on exactly what I’m thinking about when I read your work. I’ve become very interested in lean manufacturing, how to manage and coach for it and how it works with flow, cycles and ease once you catch the wave. About my TM practice of 35 years that is always about ease, never about strain. It does take discipline to do either one every day. And it takes discipline not to go for the quick fix in lean coaching or to try to deepen the experience with effort when meditating. But discipline and strain aren’t the same, and the amount of discipline is far less once we stop pushing and feel the pull of the effortless process.

    Yes, I think the distinction between stretching and straining are important ones as well. It’s often very much of a stretch not to strain. And if your voice teacher was in my town, I’d start lessons tomorrow.

  • As it relates to golf, strain can be harmful. Staying loose and “in the zone” while holding on to confidence and concentration is the formula for success.

    Tiger Woods really does know how to concentrate when playing golf but when his focus transforms into “trying too hard” that stressful attitude usually results in missed shots….that is my observation of some of his recent TV broadcast golf performances.

  • Thanks for the Newsweek article, Dan. Relatives from Grand Haven just forwarded it.

    I last saw you in Estes Park at a Kellogg Fellows reunion. I don’t recall if Jack was with you then, but my JP is thirteen, and there was a small cadre of young males from that generation who got along great and provided hope for us parents.

    We also have hopes that JP will be a good man; he’s also a good athlete and artist, and we were just praising him because he’s a ‘go to guy’ with his peers who know he’s responsible with his school work and will help them out with their assignments. I’m still waiting for him to pass me up in height, though.

  • It is Wednesday, and I am finally reading the RFL . . . no strain? Ideally we are prepared and trained so that what we do is done without strain. Strain is the result of not being prepared. We face events which are no expected, and which we cannot plan for, nor train for, and then strain is imposed on us. We need to do all we can to stay within safe parameters, so that when the unexpected occurs we have a reserve of energy and a set of strategies that allow us to think of ways to deal with the unexpected as best we can. Leadership has some strain that cannot be comepletely avoided.

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