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Book review: Dare to be big

Be Big. Step Up. Step Out. Be Bold

By Judith Katz and Frederick Miller

Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.

$13.95

I turned 40 last month.

My wife pulled together a surprise birthday dinner with family and a child-free weekend at the Four Seasons. We slept in until 10:30 a.m., which ranks high on the list of all-time greatest gifts.

I had two birthday cakes. I blew out the first set of candles wishing for money figuring I've already got enough happiness. The second time I blew out candles, I wished for bigness.

Not the sort of bigness that comes from eating birthday cake for breakfast, a cherished Robb family tradition that my wife has yet to warm up to.

Instead, I wished for the bigness that comes from stepping up, stepping out and being bold both at work and in the community.

And I made the wish while thinking about my dad. He was big with his family and he was big with the kids he taught and mentored as an elementary school teacher and principal. But could he of been even bigger?

What if, on his 40th birthday, he'd somehow gotten word from on high that he was down to his final decade? That he wouldn't get to blow out the candles on his 51st birthday cake? That there'd be no post-retirement second-half where he could do everything he'd put on hold? How much bigger would my dad have gotten, knowing how little time was left on the clock and that there wasn't a year, a month or a week to waste?

It's a wake-up call more of us need to hear, say authors Judith Katz and Frederick Miller. We're nowhere near as big as we could, and should, be. Being big isn't about ego or fame, showing off or showing others up.

Being big means being brave and having the courage to dream, think and show up big so that we do our best work. It's about standing up for what you believe in and doing what's right and what's best for the greater good.

"Many of us have a strong desire to be big," say the authors. "To give our best every day. To not hide out or be small. Many of us want to be big in order to bring our voice and add great value, and to enable our coworkers and partners to do the same."

But while we want to be big, we act small. We don't show up. We don't step up. And we don't speak out. We fool ourselves into believing that things are just fine the way they are at work and in our community. We tell ourselves that one person can't make a difference and even if one person could, that person's definitely not us. We're not cut out to be a hero or a trailblazer.

We like to believe that it's better to be safe than sorry. We're a small fish in a big pond. Best to lay low and fly under the radar, contributing far less than we're capable of.

"While some of us may feel small because we lack self-confidence, certain management styles and workplace cultures contribute as well," say the authors. "In some organizations, it can be dangerous to be big enough to stand out. It can be dangerous to step out of the box you, or others, have put you in. It can get you criticized. It can get you ostracized. It can get you fired."

Lousy bosses routinely send their staff on the express train to Smallville. They don't pay attention, don't listen and don't seem to care about anyone but themselves. They talk over everyone else and don't give airtime to any ideas but their own. Rocking the boat and making waves are cardinal sins. These bosses can rhyme off all the shortcomings, weaknesses and screw-ups by their staff but draw a blank when it comes to talking about talents, strengths and potential.

Keeping employees small isn't smart. Given the pace of change and the size and scope of challenges coming at our organizations, everyone needs to give their best every day.

Checking your head and heart at the door risks shrinking organizations down to irrelevance.

"Organizations need all of us to bring more of ourselves to the workplace," say the authors. "Innovation, problem solving and productivity depend upon us being big. Each person must contribute to collectively have a big impact on achieving the goals of the organization."

So how do we get bigger? Katz and Miller map out four steps.

  1. Step up to the challenge of being big, to new responsibilities and to the opportunities for growth and partnership.
  2. Step out of old routines, from being your small self and seeing others as small.
  3. Be bold. Speak up rather than stay silent. Identify where and how you can be big and connect with others who are doing the same. Be ready and able to take the heat for being big.
  4. And finally, dare to stand up for yourself. Consider new ideas. Make mistakes. Encourage others to get in the game. Create new thoughts, new dreams and new possibilities.

Getting out of your comfort zone and getting big isn't easy, say the authors. Inspiring the folks around you to get big is even more of a challenge.

And the biggest challenge of all is to get everyone to be big together.

That's easier said than done. Many of us prefer to go it alone. We don't want anyone meddling in our work or looking over our shoulder.

The more people involved, the more time it takes to get the job done and who has any time to spare? We're leery of groupthink and not keen on sharing the credit. And the more control we keep, the more comfortable we feel.

Yet we'll always do better by working together. We need each other's competencies, experiences and perspectives. "Each new point of view and set of skills adds t our capabilities, our potential and our completeness, collectively and individually. If we are going to succeed over the long haul, everybody needs to be willing to step up and step out together, to be big and get smarter as we go."

So stop hiding and playing it safe by being small. Work up the courage to step up. Step out. And be bold. Be big because you don't know how many more birthday candles you'll get to blow out.

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. Tom Cooper #

    Hey Jay – very inspiring column! Just gave me some oomph!

    August 19, 2008
  2. Hank Swerscz #

    My wife and I used to live at 247 Bond North until several years ago. I’ll never forget the wintry morning about 10 years ago when you alerted me to the fact that a recycling truck had backed into my parked car and then driven off.I think the driver was trying to get away with it in a criminal fashion but I settled with just getting the damage fixed. I’ve moved on to other things.

    August 23, 2008
  3. Deb Calarco #

    Hey Jay
    Great article!

    August 23, 2008

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