To My Readers: I’m honored to republish, with permission, an article by Rodger Dean Duncan that first appeared in Forbes January 16, 2019. In it, he interviewed me about my approach to personal development. This is the first of two posts; the second half of the interview will post next week.
— Frank Sonnenberg
You Are What You Eat … And What You Read
By Rodger Dean Duncan PhD with Frank Sonnenberg
As we ease into a new year, I find myself—maybe like you—considering what I want to do with the next 12 months. Sure, I have some goals. Some of them I even expect to reach. Like reading.
Last year I read more than 100 books. Do the math. That’s about two books per week, or one every three or four days. Maybe not a lot by Bill Gates standards, but, hey, he’s a billionaire and apparently has a lot of time on his hands. Yet still a respectable effort.
Reading, I learned at an early age, is good for the soul. If, that is, you read things that are worthy of your soul.
Satirist P. J. O’Rourke gave this further perspective: “Always read something that will make you look good if you die in the middle of it.”
In addition to stacks of books, my reading includes articles, news reports, opinion pieces, and various blog posts.
The blog posts run the gamut on subject and viewpoint. One venue that I’ve found to provide a daily dose of uplift is a blog by Frank Sonnenberg. Its focus is on character, personal values, and personal responsibility. Like I said, something good for the soul.
Nothing syrupy here. Sonnenberg, who serves on several boards and consults for companies you would know and respect, writes about issues important to your success. His content comes across as a favorite uncle talking to you across the kitchen table. No ram-it-down-your-throat lectures. Just straightforward (and brief) observations and advice on matters that matter.
FrankSonnenbergOnline was named one of the “Best 21st Century Leadership Blogs” and is among the most frequently shared items on the Internet. Frank has written several books, including Soul Food: Change Your Thinking, Change Your Life.
I reached out to him to learn more about his approach to personal development.
Rodger Dean Duncan: You say the purpose of your work is to share valuable lessons to boost people’s happiness and success. How and when did you decide to pursue this passion?
Frank Sonnenberg: I’ve always been a student of life and continue to take every opportunity to learn and grow. As far back as I can remember, I’ve asked myself questions such as: How do people build trust? What makes a superior role model? What are the character traits of an effective leader? What’s the difference between success and happiness? And I’ve made it my business to find out.
My mission is simple: To reawaken our commitment to character, values, and personal responsibility. It’s important to note that this is not a business; it’s my passion. I simply want to make a difference by sharing what I’ve learned.
Duncan: In one of your essays titled “You Get What You Expect” you write about Roger Bannister, the great runner who proved that a four-minute mile is possible. How common do you believe it is for people to allow “conventional wisdom” to hold them back? What’s a good antidote for that?
Sonnenberg: Did you ever notice that when you’re in the market for a new car, you seem to notice car ads more than usual? The same is true for preconceived notions. When you expect a particular outcome, you look for evidence to support that view. That can have a significant impact on your behavior and on results. For example, if you believe you’re going to be successful, you’re going to view your prospects differently than if you think people like me never stand a chance.
It’s very easy to get caught up in groupthink. The problem is, what makes you think that others are wiser than you? Maybe they have a chip on their shoulder or a hidden agenda. Follow their lead at your peril. Be your own person. Garner the strength and courage to stand alone and determine your own destiny. Believe in yourself and your ability to be successful. Your mindset matters more than you think. Invest in your personal growth. Everything you learn is like money in the bank. Meet challenges head-on. Prove that you can overcome tough challenges. That will give you the strength and determination to meet challenges that lie ahead. Make good choices. Your life is determined by the sum of the choices that you make.
Duncan: The essays you write are upbeat and positive. To what extent are they autobiographical? Are you talking to yourself as well as to your audience? If so, how does that affect your choice of topics?
Sonnenberg: Some of my essays are based on my deep-rooted philosophy and experiences, while others are based on my observations as a consultant or on examining challenges that I see others face.
I keep a running list of topics with me at all times, and it doesn’t seem like I’m going to run out of subject matter any time soon. When I finish one, I simply go through my list and choose one that intrigues me at the moment.
When I write about topics such as karma, win-win relationships, or the importance of honor and integrity, they are not platitudes; they are principles that I care deeply about. Moral character is the DNA of success and happiness, and I’m here to prove it to you.
Duncan: Your messages are typically brief—often only two or three paragraphs followed by a brief list of action steps. In coaching others, what hints can leaders take from this approach?
Sonnenberg: I’ve spent as much time thinking about how to communicate as what I’m going to say. People have different preferences for how they like to receive information. For that reason, I construct my messages in several formats: a quote of the day, free downloadable posters, blog posts, and books. My essays run approximately 650 words, by design, so that they take no longer than five minutes to read. In addition, rather than lecturing everyone about moral character, values, and personal responsibility (boring), I weave those principles into real-world scenarios to make each lesson relevant. I incorporate bullet points for skimmers and links for those who want to learn more. I also make sure that every essay contains actionable advice. Last but not least, before I write each piece, I arbitrarily select three people and mentally write to them to keep the writing style personal.
Contrast this with how some leaders communicate in business. First, they isolate themselves in closed-door meetings and pontificate their strategy. They prepare elaborate PowerPoint presentations that go into exhaustive detail about how and why they should embark in a new direction. Then, without much forethought, they send out a tedious memo or video (that’s so long it can be made into a miniseries) to employees. Leadership assumes that employees will stop what they’re doing and review the materials. Furthermore, they assume that employees will understand the rationale even though it’s never presented. Then they’re surprised when the initiative lacks commitment and employee buy-in.
Duncan: You suggest surrounding yourself with positive people because their energy is contagious. What advice do you have for someone who, at least in the short term, works in an atmosphere where relationships are toxic?
Sonnenberg: Toxic waste has a tremendous impact on the environment. Now consider the impact that toxic people have on your life. They can strip you of your confidence and influence you to lower your standards or compromise your values.
When you were a kid your parents influenced your behavior. When you grew up, your friends filled that role. Now it’s time for you to take the baton and live a life that makes YOU proud. Don’t let your behavior be influenced by others who do not share your values; hold yourself to a much higher standard—your conscience.
The fact is, people can’t make you do things without your permission. Set high standards, be true to your values, and listen to your conscience. That’s why you have one. At the end of the day, it’s your life to live. Own it. You have to live with yourself for the rest of your life.
Check out the second half of this interview: Frank Sonnenberg On Matters That Matter
This article first appeared in Forbes. It is republished, with permission. (© 2019 Rodger Dean Duncan. All rights reserved.)
Rodger Dean Duncan is the bestselling author of LeaderSHOP: Workplace, Career, and Life Advice From Today’s Top Thought Leaders.
About Rodger Dean Duncan
For the past 40 years I’ve consulted and coached leaders from the factory floor to the boardroom in some of the world’s best companies in multiple industries. Basically, I help people get good stuff done while avoiding the Dilbert Zone. Early in my career I covered politics and business for Texas newspapers, and freelanced for publications ranging from The New York Times and The National Observer to Boys’ Life and Parade magazine. Then I was a university professor, worked on Wall Street, served in two White House administrations, advised several U.S. Senators, and headed worldwide communications at Campbell Soup Company. My Ph.D. (Purdue University) is in organizational behavior, but my orientation is the real world of real work. My bestselling book is CHANGE-friendly LEADERSHIP: How to Transform Good Intentions into Great Performance. Follow on Twitter @DoctorDuncan
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