Leader or Lone Nut?

“He who leadeth but hath no followers is only taking a walk.”

Different versions of this quote have come to me over the years as I have tried to heed it’s warning. Leadership isn’t about the intent of the one. It’s about the actions of the many. I have concluded that you and I are in leadership settings most of the time, regardless of how good we may be at it. We have an obligation to lead regardless of where we sit or what the circumstances may be. We have something good to offer in most settings and keeping our influence to ourselves can be downright irresponsible.

I have also considered the opposite of the quote. Something like, “regardless of their intention, the person at the front of the pack is a leader” (I couldn’t translate that into a King James version). Accidental leaders are still leaders. Leadership has existed since before it was technically recognized. A Google search for the term, leadership results in over 467 million matches. A book search at Amazon.com reveals over 145,000 results. I am certain John Maxwell didn’t come up with the concept on his own. We can find leadership happening in typical and unexpected places, and we see leaders coming with traditional titles and roles; and some are leading with no formal authority or expectation. Leadership can be in alignment with the interests of an organization, project or society, and it can also promote negative or harmful things.

Look around you. Are you in a position of leadership? Look at that again - not have you been officially placed and paid to serve with a title of leadership, but are there others who are counting on you to contribute and influence the outcome? Are you fulfilling that mission? Is there anyone following you, or are you simply taking a walk?

Study your surroundings again, forgetting your obligations or intentions to lead. Are there people walking with you or behind you voluntarily or accidentally? Congratulations… By chance are nudging them in the right direction?

Sometimes our most effective contribution cannot be delivered from the “top” of the organizational structure. Sometimes our most productive influence is given from behind the scenes in support of those with official leadership titles. Sometimes we lead from within the pack. Sometimes we lead from the bottom of the organization. Leadership is simply influence, regardless of where it comes from.

This short Ted talk by Derek Sivers explores and demonstrates how the “first follower” can keep the leader from becoming a “lone nut.” Enjoy.




Habit 7: Sharpen the Saw

The first three habits move us from dependence to independence – taking responsibility for ourselves and our work, becoming accountable in all things and getting our own houses in order.  Habits 4 – 6 bring us to a mindset of communication and collaboration, or interdependence - realizing that the contributions of others, added to our work, increase our effectiveness. Now we must take time to sharpen the saw.

This habit speaks directly to my personal essential intent*. My personal desire to get better every day is reflected in the focus of stormwater programs and projects of my employer** and also influences how I want to help others. My essential intent of promoting awareness and purpose, encouraging accountability, and spurring action among water quality professionals is all about getting better every day.

Getting better every day also applies outside of technical knowledge and skill and on the weekends. Sharpening the saw is bigger than continuing education or professional development. Covey guides us to preserve, enhance, and renew “the four dimensions” of our nature – physical, spiritual, mental, and social/emotional. He teaches that sharpening the saw makes all the other habits possible.

Finding time to get better in all for dimensions can be difficult. It takes a focused desire to move forward in all areas and permission to remain flexible. I run when I can because I want to live as long as I can. If I’m tired or sore, it’s ok to be slow. If I cant, I cant.  It’s ok. I read because it expands my perspective. The average millionaire in America reads one non-fiction book per month. I’m not a millionaire, so I read when I can. My salvation doesn’t depend on church attendance, but I go as often as I can because its good spiritually for me, my family, and my community. My nature is not a social one, but I engage with people when I can because I know deep down that I need others, and I also happen to believe that happiness [is] only real when shared.***

This was the seventh (really the eighth) and last post of a seven-part series applying Stephen Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People to stormwater management. I hope you have enjoyed walking back through the Seven Habits with me and you might take time to run back through all of the posts beginning with the initial post on habit. Thanks to my very busy sister for suggesting the topic.

Habits aren’t easy to form or easy to change, but then again, neither are most other good things in life.



*Greg Mckeown does a great job of describing essential intent in Chapter 10 of his book, Essentialism, The Disciplined Pursuit of Less.

**The website name, betterbeltline.org was no accident.

***The last words of Christopher McCandless as quoted in, Into the Wild by John Krakauer.




Habit 6: Synergize

Ok, I don’t care for the term either. I can easily imagine a Saturday Night Live skit with a stereotypical career coach (Will Ferrell  would play the part rather than Chris Farley, in case you were thinking of motivational speaker, Matt Foley).  Characters would sit around ineffectively preaching to each other using terms and phrases like, out-of-the-box, 24/7, Six Sigma, ‘A’-game, Web 2.0, and of course, synergy. I’m not sure where the punch line comes in, but I’m not sure that is a requirements in all of SNL’s work.

Synergy may be one of the most overused words in business, but it’s root meaning and origin should not be ignored.

Synergy, simply put, means working together. The meaning reminds me of a definition my friends and I at the Collaborative Environmental Network of Alabama came up with for collaboration – choosing to explore solutions together.

Covey claims that synergy is “the essence of principle-centered leadership.” He teaches the common, and again, overused meaning - “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”

Obviously, our best work is usually enhanced by and through the influence and direct contribution of others. There is a reason communication is considered to be THE Best Management practice and is ranked as the first of the Five Pillars of Construction Stormwater Management. When effective communication happens, relationships form, minds become aligned toward common goals, and thinking and prioritization cause good things to happen. That’s synergy.

Synergistic effort can be exciting. The satisfaction and reward come mainly because it’s hard. The mere thought of leaning on others for our own success is a bit scary. Covey describes levels of communication with a diagram showing synergistic communication requiring a combination of high trust and high cooperation. At the opposite end of the continuum is defensive communication, with only win/lose or lose/win outcomes. Maintaining low trust and low cooperation is an option. Both minimums are easy to live and feel safe initially. However, neither move us toward achieving our goals and both could render us irrelevant as the advancing and unpredictable world passes us by.


covey levels


Synergy often leads to an unexpected third alternative – one that is better than either of you could have come up with on your own.


In other words (from my van down by the river), as you are evaluating your core competencies, trying to take it to the next level, and looking for low hanging fruitat the end of the day, it’s all about pushing the envelope, scalability, and giving 110%. To go viral, a robust paradigm shift is in order.  ROI matters and SEO is impactful. It is what it is. And always remember to sharpen the saw, which is the next and final habit of highly effective people.  See you next week.



Habit 5: Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood

Empathy is a critical element to interdependence and collaboration. Seeking to understand requires intense listening which informs empathy. Too often, we go ahead and create a person’s story without even knowing them. We make huge decisions and take significant actions based on uninformed assumptions. There is a remote chance that our assumptions can be correct based on some type of knowledge, from our own experience or the shared experience of others. But, I think, we are incorrect more often than not when it comes to judging people and their motives.

A larger benefit of understanding first may be in how the act affects your partner. In my bureaucratic world of state government, many of our customers are pre-convinced that a battle must be fought in order to be heard, much less be understood. There is usually very little hope in their interests being considered (again, based on experience, their assumption may be correct).

So when I decide to hear them out, or better yet, actually become interested in their circumstance, tension starts to ease and doors begin to open. They not only begin to accept me as human, but also start to see that there could be a legitimate reason for us to deny their request as submitted. We begin to be understood – not by seeking to be understood, but by first seeking to understand.

Again, it is very difficult to influence someone we are not willing to hang out with.DSCN0959

Habit Five sits at the heart of your community of influence. It involves the act of influence, but doesn’t start with an outward projection of my need to influence. It starts with an acknowledgement that I do not know everything, and a desire to make decisions using the best available information. Seeking first to understand enables us to work with accurate information, it gets us to the heart of matters more quickly, it kindles unlikely but productive relationships, and it gives others space to rethink negative and incorrect perceptions about us.

Habit Five feels a bit risky if you happen to not be into growing. If you have it all figured out already, Habit Five is probably not for you. There is a very good chance that placing yourself in the position of listener might actually get you influenced. Covey reminds us, “being influenceable is the key to influencing others.”

Of course we get to decide. We can sit with ourselves, right where we sit. Or, we can choose to explore solutions with others and see where we end up. The latter sounds more fun to me.


This is the fifth of a seven-part series applying Stephen Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Peopleto stormwater management. The series was kicked off with a post on habit.

Habit 4: Think Win/Win

There are many players in the world of stormwater and many varied interests. The owner needs a completed and functioning project; the engineer and inspector need work performed in accordance with the plan; the contractor needs a profit; the regulator needs compliance; and ultimately, the water needs protection. So is it reasonable to believe that a win/win/win/win/win can ever take place? I think it depends.

It depends on one’s view toward scarcity and their openness to the unusual idea that there can be more than one success in any given situation.

Habit 4: Think Win/Win is the first habit that attempts to move us from independence to interdependence. Until now, we have been getting ourselves in order (being proactive, beginning with the end in mind, putting first things first). Interdependence can only be built on a foundation of personal accountability and independence (as opposed to dependence). Once we get ourselves together, we must expand our focus to include others.

According to Covey, “Think Win-Win isn’t about being nice, nor is it a quick-fix technique. It is a character-based code for human interaction and collaboration.”

Win/Win can be a legitimate strategy for success but it cannot be manipulative (someone eventually loses with manipulation).  We must commit to it in order to be successful. It is fairly easy to spot common interests and to create mutually beneficial situations, but we must look for them. If its all about me, I’ll never see the opportunities. We must intentionally grab a partner, start talking to discover shared desired outcomes, make a plan, and keep talking to reinforce commitment to the plan and to reinforce trust. It’s about true engagement and a sincere desire to see another’s needs be met.

Win/Win is about character, relationships, and agreements.

Are you looking out for your partner (owner, engineer, inspector, regulator, contractor)? Do you have their back? Are you prepared to defend them when the time comes?

Would you like some support – someone to take up your slack? Are you tired of conflict at every turn?

Are you thinking win/win?  Why not?


This is the fourth of a seven-part series applying Stephen Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Peopleto stormwater management. The series was kicked off with a post on habit.

Habit 3: Put First Things First

Dr. John C. Maxwell teaches us that one of an organizations greatest challenges is to get its employees to think, and to do things in order of importance. This advice certainly speaks to Habit 1 – Be Proactive, but also applies here as well. For example, over the past fifteen years, our construction stormwater program has evolved into one of the best in the nation. That is mainly through an approach of continuous improvement and by putting first things first.

As with most construction programs, we started with a symptom-focused approach (sediment). From there we moved to source-focused (erosion), cause-focused (water), and implementation-focused (work). We finally landed at effectiveness-focused, where we place communication first and consider it the BEST management practice. We call the approach, The Five Pillars of Construction Stormwater Management. One can start with managing sediment if they wish and reap the consequences. But to truly be effective, we believe that one must manage communication, work, water, erosion, then sediment… in that order… first things first.

Most areas of environmental protection start by focusing on symptoms, or “low hanging fruit.” The symptoms are easy to spot, obvious to even the non-professional, and satisfying them fulfills a need to do something positive. But treating the symptom usually doesn’t solve the real problem. So we are often left treating symptoms over and over again without real change or push towards a cure.

Habit 3 is about recognizing what is truly important, zooming in, and making a commitment to keep that focus.  It’s about priorities and deciding how we will use our gift and finite resource of time. Covey provides a tools to help us with time management and decision-making. No doubt that he had no idea that his Time Management Matrix would be so applicable to our world of managing stormwater, but it fits perfectly.


Covey’s matrix is divided into four quadrants beginning with the upper left: (I) important/urgent; (II) important/not urgent; (III) not important/urgent; and (IV) not important/not urgent. Quadrant One requires immediate attention, but if focused upon, can easily consume us as it continues to grow. The only thing we can do to manage and reduce the size of Quadrant One is to shift our focus to Quadrant Two, which keeps important things from also becoming urgent things (which would move them to Quadrant One). But a focus on Quadrant Two activities requires time and energy that we may not have left if we are allowing ourselves to be sucked in by Quadrant Three or Four activities.

One example – what do you call “relaxation?” Is it really calming your mind, or is it simply filling your time while your mind goes numb? Think Candy Crush, Dance Moms, Fantasy Football, or even Google News (mainly just headline scanning for me please). We are not doomed by spending time there, but we must acknowledge that time spent there is time spent outside of Quadrant Two, which also happens to have some fun stuff.  We spend a lot of time in our vehicles. How about switching from country music to a podcast on leadership (or marketing, or marriage, or parenting, or personal fitness, or …)?

Stephen Covey encourages us in this chapter to ask ourselves a question in both personal and professional applications -

What is one thing you could do (that you aren’t doing now) that, if done on a regular basis, would make a tremendous difference in your life?

The answer sits in Quadrant Two and really could change your life… if you decide that’s where your focus lies.

Habit 2: Begin with the End in Mind

Steven Covey speaks a lot about mission statements while describing Habit 2. With all due respect, I see the vision statement as being more applicable here than a mission statement. And that may simply be a different understanding of what mission and vision statements are all about. I have been a part of developing mission and vision statements in several different settings. On of the greatest challenges in that exercise is to first get everyone on the same page in regards to the purpose of each type of statement.The_7_Habits_of_Highly_Effective_People

I have learned to lean on the following definitions from John Spence’s book, Awesomely Simple: “A mission says why a company exists, the vision says where we want to go, and values declare how we will behave along the way.”

To me, beginning with the end in mind is all about seeing this ideal place or condition where we want to be. Take a second to imagine what your professional role would be in and ideal, but realistic, world. Reality matters here. We must recognize that there will always be challenges associated with water quality protection. Technical expertise and innovative solutions will always be in demand. As will the ability to influence people. Our director likes to say, “nothing worth doing can be done without contentiousness.” I think this will always be the case.

So where do you fit in? Are you the leader (in thought and in application), or do you continue to have a “job” where boxes are checked and excellence in paperwork management is top priority – where compliance is king and today looks a lot like yesterday?

What would your company or organization look like if you created it from scratch. Would you have the same structure, the same positions, people, and culture? Or would it be better positioned to actually make a difference, rather than to serve the lowest denominator at the lowest price?

If we are truly interested in doing our part to see that the goals of the Clean Water Act are achieved, we need to be able to imagine what that looks like. Creating a clear, vivid, compelling vision of our future is critical to keeping us focused on a common definition of success. Once created, that vision of the end must be communicated to every member of our team, company, organization, association, and profession.

So where are you headed?  

Andy Stanley teaches, “direction, not intention determines destination.” If we pay attention, we can see where we may end up if we stay on our selected path. We may also see how that destination may differ from our intended End.

Is that really where you want to be?

Starting with an image of the ideal destination is the most logical step in getting us there.

What does the end look like to you?


This is the second of a seven-part series applying Stephen Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People to stormwater management. The series was kicked off with a post on habit.

Habit 1: Be Proactive

Proactivity, according to Stephen Covey, is more than simply taking initiative. It’s about taking responsibility for our lives. It’s about us actually making things happen instead of waiting for things to happen to us (reactivity). Being proactive is the very first step we must take as we move from dependence to interdependence.The_7_Habits_of_Highly_Effective_People

If we are still blaming “they” for our challenges and problems, we haven’t come as close to being professionals and leaders as we may think. Leaders and those with character live and thrive within the realm of reality. They understand that the designer, contractor, inspector, regulator, or anyone else don’t get to decide our fate. We get to choose whether or not to build this project. We choose to do the work within all of the constraints that must be overcome. We decide if we are a check-the-box organization or truly committed to the protection of water quality. We choose how we treat people, and how much effort we invest into a relationship or into a SWPPP.

Our effectiveness is significantly affected by our decision to act or to be acted upon. How we frame the situation matters. John Miller, author of QBQ!,The Question Behind the Question, says that we can eliminate blame, complaining, and procrastination by asking the right questions. He suggests that the best questions begin with “what” or “how” (not “why,” “when,” or “who”); they contain an “I” (not “they,” “them,” “we,” or “you”); and they always focus on action. Covey gives examples of how one’s attitude can be transformed by asking, “What’s our response,” rather than “What’s happening.”

The language we use tells a story. Not only to those around us, but also to ourselves. How we speak to others isn’t nearly important as how we speak to ourselves.

John Maxwell tells us that two of the most difficult things for an organization to do is to get its folks to think, and to do things in order of importance. Both require proactivity.

Waiting to act until we are literally knee-deep in the mud  is an inefficient, ineffective, and distracting approach to managing stormwater. Rushing (or wandering) into a stage of construction or season of regulatory change without taking time to think, and prioritize, and be proactive is simply wasteful. Covey teaches that between stimulus and response, one has the power to choose. Some things that make us human lie within that freedom to choose. These are: self-awareness (being aware of our present situation); imagination (being able to think beyond our present condition); conscience (an awareness of how closely our thougts and behaviors are in alignment with our principles); and independent will (the ability to act based on these other influences).

Put off doing right things long enough, and sooner or later someone will come along and make you do it on their terms, which may not be in alignment with your mission, our interests, or even in accordance with good common sense. No need to wait around to see what will happen next.  we have the ability to make it happen now, on our terms.


This is the first of a seven-part series applying Stephen Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People to stormwater management. The series was kicked off with a post on habit.


I don’t necessarily like to get up at 5:00am and go for a run. I also don’t like to deny myself or my family of things that we can’t afford, even if we happen to have enough cash on hand to buy them today. It’s hard for me to read at the end of a long day. Believe it or not, I don’t always like to take my personal time to maintain this blog.

Not all of these have been completely habitual in every season, but my family and I reap real long term benefits when they are.

The topic of habit has been popping up all around me lately. In blog posts, podcasts (Entreleadership, Andy Stanley Leadership, HBR Ideacast), and even in stormwater articles (here’s a good behavior-focused stormwater-related article by Jesse Poore). Some of these works reference The Power of Habit, a book by Charles Duhigg.  I haven’t read the book, but it’s on my list.



What I’m learning is that habit is powerful. It is stronger than fear – Example: the fear of public speaking can eventually be overcome by speaking, over and over again. Habit lessens the need for willpower, reserving it for more important things - Example: rather than using up all my willpower to roll out of bed, I simply get up because that’s what I do (in theory, on most days). That might save enough willpower to get the next blog post written before my day job starts. I have also learned that certain “keystone” habits can actually make our lives better in other, unrelated areas – Example: people with healthy eating habits also seem to do a better job with managing money for some reason.

My daughter shared with me that “practice makes permanent,” which allows for a potentially negative aspect of habit, one that I completely understand. Habits built around bad things can be very difficult to break (think weight lifting form, hitting a volleyball or golf ball, and chewing gum with your mouth open).

Duhigg describes the process of habit simply as CUE – ROUTINE – REWARD.  His framework revolves around the routine but also involves: identifying the routine; experimenting with rewards; isolating the cue; and having a plan. Changing an undesirable habit requires a change in routine.

In his classic, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey defines habit as the “intersection of knowledge, skill, and desire.” Knowledge is the why and the what to do; skill is the how to do; and desire is the want to do. All three are required to establish habit. Covey’s Seven Habits attempts to lead us from dependence to independence, and ultimately, interdependence, which is a line of progression the stormwater community would do well to follow.

My sister borrowed my Seven Habits book several months ago. She loves the thought, but can’t seem to maintain the habit of reading books these days (her occupation of wife, mother of six, and homeschool teacher, and runner have something to do with that). She returned the book recently, mostly unread. She has given up for now, but suggested that I take on the subject through media she does find time to read – StormwaterTools.

So, in her honor, beginning next week, I will address each of the seven habits and relate each one to our world of dirty water. Stay tuned.



“It’s cheaper to pay the fine.”

The short view: The cost of compliance exceeds the cost (and odds) of getting caught.

It’s obvious that an effective environmental protection program can be expensive. So is an effective safety program, an effective quality assurance program, and an effective marketing and sales program. Effectiveness on its own requires resources. Valuable and scarce resources can be saved or used in other important areas if  future overall value wasn’t a consideration. In personal terms, saving for college and retirement is not  required, but it is essential for long-term financial success.

Also, it is clear that regulators (environmental, public safety, internal revenue) rely on our estimations of the chances of being caught. And in the world of stormwater, even considering differences in the size, type, and location of the project, the chances of being caught are relatively low.  The chances of going to jail or even having to pay a fine proportional to the cost of compliance are actually pretty remote.

So, with effectiveness being so expensive, and the odds of having to pay a proportional fine being so low, why would any organization or entity choose on their own to protect and preserve water quality? Looking only at the short run, this risk of not committing is attractive, especially when only some of the potential downside is considered.

I’ll use MoDot’s recently proposed enforcement action to make the case for long term investing (the MoDOT settlement is pending and all actions are proposed).

The violations: Two of MoDOT’s hundreds of road and bridge projects were found to be out of regulatory compliance. MoDOT claims two big rain events led to the violations that happened about two years ago.  My guess is that EPA likely suspected problems on more than two and concluded systemic issues within the organization.

The fine: The $750,000 civil penalty is a big number to you and me. But it could also represent the total construction stormwater budget for a single large project (at 5%). Still an easily bearable cost for the short-termer.

The real costs:

  • A requirement to “implement a statewide compliance program that will ensure adequate management and oversight of construction sites and compliance with the Missouri construction stormwater general permit.” Some required elements of the new compliance program are listed HERE (scroll to Injunctive Relief).  These are recurring and long term costs to implement elements of any effective program. The argument could be made that MoDOT should have been spending this anyway, so its not a real penalty. I’ll just say that if you put off doing right things long enough, sooner or later a regulator will come along and make you do it on their terms.
  • MoDOT has been working hard for two years to ameliorate this pending enforcement action and bolster their negotiating position. Those spent resources can’t be dismissed.
  • Lost trust. It will take many years before MoDOT can expect others to believe their intentions are now in the right place. This will make future work more difficult and more expensive. Grace is precious, especially in a world where many of the things that can sink us are beyond our control.
  • MoDOT is a leader in environmental protection – whether they like it or not. Other practitioners rely on MoDOT as an example of how things should be done. After all, they are likely the largest developer in Missouri. The cost to and by others who have followed MoDOT’s lead, good and bad, is immeasurable but significant.
  • Overcoming an impression of irresponsibility. Why would I agree to increased highway taxes if I see those who manage them as being irresponsible?

We have a mission – we must engage in activities in order to fulfill that mission – some of those activities have the potential to negatively impact the environment – and

it is this potential that triggers environmental responsibility.

If we don’t address our responsibilities, it may become difficult to fulfill our mission. It takes true leadership to make the connection between mission and environmental responsibility.



An old maritime saying goes, “If you think safety is expensive, try having an accident.”

If you still think it’s cheaper to pay the fine, please talk with a responsible organization that has just received a wake-up call with a “token” monetary penalty.