Are You a Step-Up or Step-Down Transformer?

This article was originally published in the Maryland Association of CPA’s quarterly magazine, The Statement

Anxiety and creativity are always inversely proportional to each other. The more anxious you are, the less creative you can be. Therefore, trying to increase your creativity only makes you more anxious. Thinking, “I need to be creative, now!” is unlikely to work.

If you want to increase your creativity, you must focus on lowering your level of anxiety. Note that anxiety is different from stress. You can be in a stressful situation but be non- (or at least less) anxious about the situation. Stress is the circumstances you are in, whereas anxiety is the emotion you feel.

Most people I speak with about this concept are very accepting of the idea, at least for themselves. However, I have found that while people resonate internally with the idea, their leadership style does not reflect it in how they approach others. In leading people, they tend to increase the anxiety of a situation by their behavior. They are “step-up anxiety transformers.”

Transformers are amazing

An electrical device that transfers electrical energy between two or more circuits through electromagnetic induction is known as a transformer and are used to increase or decrease the voltage of electric power of the power grid.

These amazing devices work by wrapping wires around a piece of metal at different densities. If the density of the wrapped wires is lower on the incoming side than the outgoing side, then the voltage is stepped up. If the density of the wrapped wires is higher on the incoming side than the outgoing side, then the voltage is stepped down.

A great example of this is the A/C to USB adapter on your iPhone. One hundred and twenty volts (standard US electrical outlet) would instantly fry your phone. The adapter reduces the voltage to the needed 5 volts for the phone. The little gizmo is a step-down transformer.

In their ground-breaking book, Healing Leadership, Howard Hansen and Steve Geske, postulate that like electrical transformers, leaders can be one of two different types of transformers. They can either step-up the level of anxious energy in an organization or step it down. Sadly, many people are step-up transformers. They write:

The least mature in any group, including families, tie up energy resources.  They are eager to create a negative presence.  We have come to call these people, ‘step-up transformers.’ Neutrally anxious energy goes in. Highly anxious energy comes out.  The net outcome is that leaders’ energy levels are reduced along with the capacity to focus on creative work. They are… skilled at making mountains out of every mole hill.

Far too many leaders fail to recognize this trait in themselves. They think they are helping by “creating a sense of urgency” or “getting people to be accountable.” This is nonsense as it is not only unhelpful, but instead sows the seeds of the leader’s own destruction. They are smothering the ability of their people to develop new and creative alternatives to the problems faced by the organization. Instead, fear takes root as the basic emotion of the group and after fear toxicity quickly follows.

What can be done?

Simply put, nothing, except for the leader to recognize that they are step-up transformers and make a conscious choice to become step-down transformers. Like their metaphorically electrical cousins, step-down transformers attempt to lower the level of anxiety by being a non-anxious presence themselves. They do this by becoming a self-differentiated person – someone who is aware of and acknowledges the anxiety of the group, but does not get enmeshed in the anxiety themselves.

In times of crisis, a self-differentiated leader seeks out a balance between being responsible for what they are in fact responsible for and being labeled as obstreperous, that is difficult to work with. This is not an easy task for many leaders, even leaders who we have traditionally viewed as “good.” Many “good” leaders all too often step in and save the day. In many cases, this behavior is out of benevolence, they truly care and want to help. Curiously, this ultimately leads to a) people thinking they need the leader in more and more situations rather than relying on themselves and b) the leader thinking they must continue to save the day and thus it becomes a vicious circle that sucks the creative energy from the group and replaces it with anxious energy.

Characteristics of step-down transformers

One of the key tools of the step-down transformer leader is humor. (Note not sarcasm.) Humor, especially if a bit self-deprecating and well timed can significantly defuse the anxiety of situations. The reason is that our human limbic (emotional) systems are open to the influence of others, they are not closed. This is why you might laugh at a comedian while in a comedy club, but barely chuckle at the same jokes if they are listening to them on TV while you are alone in a hotel room. Great comedians have the ability to actually link up an audience’s limbic systems.

A step-down transformer leader also knows to make a decision when the same questions keep getting asked over and over again. Alternatively, they sometimes reframe the question in a new way that allows the conversation to take a new less anxious direction. Reframing questions is a learned skill that can be practiced, however, recognizing when to do so is an art form in step-down transformer leaders.

Lastly, step-down transformer leaders know how and when to confront people with their own freedom. This is perhaps the greatest challenge of any leader because it takes not only the ability to recognize the situation, but the courage to act upon it. Often, people who are confronted with their own freedom recoil at the thought. They would rather view themselves as being imposed upon by others. “I have no choice,” is a frequent reply. Great step-down transformer leaders demonstrate by their own actions that human freedom, especially of one’s own feelings, is a choice.

They are not Perfect

Lastly, the most interesting aspect of this type of leadership is that those who practice it are often flawed in the ability to put it into practice. I have studied and struggled with these ideas for a decade. I believe I am better than most people at recognizing the rising level of anxiety of a group, yet still I think I only succeed in putting it into practice about once in three times.

My advice to those of you intrigued by these ideas and want to put them in practice is to learn how to be self-forgiving for not putting them into practice. Ironically, in trying too hard, you will more likely increase your own anxiety. In other words, you will become a step-up transformer of yourself.

Yeah, don’t do that.

On Feeling Safer (or how do you get cancer from a door hinge)

Last weekend, I gave myself a “honey-do” list item to solve a problem that was making me crazy.

In between our “formal” living space and our family room are two closets. One contains gift wrap, candles, out-of-season tchotchkes and the like. The other is a very narrow but deep closet that contains mostly toys and games that the kids play with. (Actually, they seldom play with them, and instead watch somebody called Stampy Longnose on their iPads, but that is another post.)

The kids do access this closet daily and I have already rigged up a motion sensing light inside the clost which remains on until no motion is detected for more than five minutes. The problem is the kids kept leaving the door open which a) impedes the hallway outside the closet, b) looks terrible, c) allows motion outside the closet to trip the motion sensor thereby illuminating the light, and d) makes me crazy to see a door open.

A few weeks ago, I had a brilliant flash of a solution – an autoclosing door hinge. I knew these existed, but I did not really know what might be involved in installing one. Fortunately, they are relatively cheap and only involve replacing one of the current hinges.

I went to Home Depot and found the hinge. Here is a photo:

You can see the cylinder in the middle a a bit larger than a regular hinge, but other than that it is normal looking.

What caught my eye however was the warning label.

You can see that according to the State of California I need to be concerned because, “this product contains chemicals known… to cause cancer and birth defects or other reproductive harm.”

Seriously, I ask you what would I possibly have to do with this door hinge in order to get cancer from it? Breathe near it? For how long? Lick it? Eat it?

I have to believe that many of the things I could come up with to do with the hinge would cause physical problems much quicker than the development of cancer.

Think about the expense that went into this company having to change their packaging and print this label on this product. It is beyond absurd.

Thanks California! I feel so much safer.

I Believe, Help My Unbelief

I am sure many of you will regard this as odd and perhaps I will get a few unsubscribes. So be it.

Frank T Kless 1943 – 2015

What follows is the text of the eulogy delivered by my Uncle Richard Kless at my father’s funeral earlier this week.

Thank the Lord for Marriott stationary. For those of you who don’t know me, I am Frank’s little brother, Richard, and this is the third time I’m doing this for one of my siblings. You know, they talk about sibling rivalry, how they always pick on the little guy? You got him, right here; Thanks to my brother. It was my brother Frank that suggested that perhaps I should say some remarks when my mom passed away, and I didn’t know it was going to turn into an industry.

Father, please forgive us for laughing in the sanctuary, and I want to thank you for a beautiful liturgy, and a wonderful mass. You saw enough of my brother in the gospel readings, so I’ll try to give some reflection too. Frank was the oldest of both sides of my family, in terms of cousins, the oldest of my three siblings, he had a lot of roles, so as Father mentioned, he was a great teacher. He did a lot of things, and I was reflecting so much that I can stand up here forever, when I thought of the many roles that he had.

When you have 10 years between your oldest sibling and yourself, there’s this ten year lapse of the little intimate snapshots. It’s not so much a video, but it’s these little pictures in my mind, and Skip was always the big guy in my life. He didn’t speak much, as a lot of you know. He wasn’t the easiest guy to communicate with. You’d wait that half hour for the, “Yes.” But I think of the many roles that he played: Big brother, oldest cousin on both sides of my family, my mother’s side and my dad’s side, and he was looked up to. He was this quiet guy.

I got an email from a good friend of mine, who was actually writing to my sons, talking about their uncle, and he said, “Your brother, your uncle Frank was always a kind and considerate man,” and that’s how we knew him. I think of the roles that he played as the oldest sibling, the oldest cousin, and then, as he went through life, I remember him deeply, and I was thinking about the first real memory I have of Frank.

He took me for a bike ride around the block in Brooklyn, New York, and if you  knew, growing up in Brooklyn, New York, your street was the world. And when he took me around the block, wow. That just opened up my horizons. And I remember him as the oldest sibling — my mother would drag me along, my brother was in a play — through high school years and all that. I look at these roles, and he fulfilled each one that he had, and not only as a sibling, where I think his quiet demeanor spoke much more than the words he could ever say. As he went through life, he became a boyfriend to a girl who only lived a block and a half away, and they met in the first grade. They went through grammar school together, and when they went to a wedding, he caught the garter, and she caught the bouquet, and the greatest role that he played was as a husband.

And then, he was asked to do some more: play the role of dad, and it was awesome to see him as a dad.

I, again, as the youngest, always had the great, nice way of going out and spoiling my nephews, and nieces and would just go back to college, and leave them all in disarray, to annoy Frank. But he was a husband, and a dad, and the role he played as grandfather was his finest that he would play, through 11 grandchildren. In all those roles that Skip played — I can call him Skip. That’s all I ever knew him– I think I only called him Frank, like twice in my life. I really mean that. To me, he was Skip, and the inspiration that he gave to us.

Some people say, “You know, it’s tough to get to know your brother. He doesn’t say much.” And look at his whole entire life. His life was speaking volumes. You have these poignant moments when someone dies, and the other day, when we went in to the funeral home — and Paul want to thank you too on behalf of the family; you’ve been a great godsend to us — Peggy started lying to her children and me. She started saying, “I am sorry I am not strong.” And Eddie said, “Ma, the last six years say otherwise.”

And I think of Skip’s last six years, the suffering that he went through. Never once would Frank complain. I remember talking to him, saying, “Why are you watching the food channel? You can’t eat it. Why are you doing this?” But he loved cooking, and it was almost–he could watch the food channel, and taste what they were doing, and he was okay with that. And I was like, “You’re sick. What’re you doing?”

But to know Skip, Frank, you have to know his faith. He was a deeply devoted Christian, Catholic man. Father alluded to that. And he was really proud of me when I was going for my masters in theology, and I think that’s the one thing, that he was always proud of other people’s achievements. When he was coaching in high school, he coached three national champion hurdlers and sprinters at Mt. Vernon High School. He only coached for five years, but he did his best.

He read up on coaching techniques, he talked to a lot of people. I know he became very good, close friends with my high school coach, and they just couldn’t believe where he got these talents from. It had to do with his great mind. He loved to read, but we know, he loved to direct too, and he taught so much.

But it’s in his quiet faith, his quiet and unassuming faith, that I would say that you would really have to know the depth of my brother. We once discussed, I remember this a few years ago. It was after he had a stroke, and he could not eat anymore. And he once asked me what my favorite scripture passage was. And I said, “Well, that’s kind of too difficult.” I have a couple of favorite ones, and one that we used in the gospel tonight is one of my favorite. But I said, “I think it’s the one in Mark’s gospel, that it’s the shortest prayer that I ever heard, but it’s the most honest prayer.” I want my relatives to know this, and Skip’s friends to know this, and I told him.

I said, it is, “Lord, I believe, but help my unbelief.” And I got talking to him about that, and he said, “That’s pretty honest, right?” You don’t believe, but you believe, and you kind of want to believe some more. And I know after a stroke, this is very ironic, you know, Kathleen passed, Jimmy had passed, and it was just he and I. Peggy told me the other night, “There’s no more bookends.” He would often say we were the two twins separated by ten years. But getting back to this mention of faith, I know that there’s some of you who don’t believe in God. I know that you’re here out of respect, but I would also say, if you want to know my brother Frank, you’d have to know the depth of his belief in the Lord Jesus. Often times, we are asked, what is it about death? We are the Kless family, so we are the family that puts fun in the word funeral because we do it so well. And again, I mean no disrespect, but I would say part of that fun, is your faith.

It’s that little seed in all of us. That says, “I believe, help my unbelief,” because Jesus honors that. In the face of death, in the face of loss that we all have, I’ve looked for it. I know other people have looked for it. And there’s only one person that has an answer for this, and that’s Jesus. And my brother knew that so well. Frank knew it so well.

Jesus hated death, and death is not the natural order of things. It’s life everlasting, it’s the love that we have for one another. It’s the love that mocks death, as Jesus would, and says come into the kingdom. The last vision I have of my brother Frank, is sitting up at the Father’s banquet, and boy, enjoying those ribs, and everything else he saw on the Food Channel. He had a beautiful understanding that men and women are the crown of God’s creation, and as great as this universe is, as great as this creation is, God loves us beyond the grave. God does not allow this to be the final word.

That was Frank. He lived it. He did not have to say too much about it. He was a kind and considerate man. As the scriptures told us, we honor him. He honored us in his life, his quiet life that he led by example. For this, we are all grateful. Thank you.

And here is the audio.

I’ll have a Yogi Berra please

Lawrence Peter "Yogi" Berra (May 12, 1925 – September 22, 2015)
Lawrence Peter “Yogi” Berra (May 12, 1925 – September 22, 2015)

While I was deeply saddened to hear about the passing of Mets (well, and Yankees) legend Yogi Berra this morning. I felt compelled to share a conversation had on my Facebook page during which Yogi gave us one last chuckle.

One commenter suggested that Yogi was the “Arnold Palmer of baseball” to which I responded that we needed to create a drink in honor of him. I came up with the following:

  • Half club soda
  • Half seltzer
  • Half carbonated water

My plan is to order one at a restaurant in the near future. Here is how I envision the conversation:

Me: I have a Yogi Berra.
Server: Never heard of that sir. What is in it?
Me: Easy it is half club soda, half seltzer and half carbonated water.
Server: Okay… Wait… what?

As a youth I proudly wore number 8 in honor of him. He was the manager of the Mets at the time.

Yogi is truly a hero of mine. Not only is he the only person I can think of who bridges the Met-Yankee divide, but his legendary reformulations of quotations are always inspirational.

When speaking I often refer to him as “that great American philosopher, Yogi Berra.” In my book he is up there with Walt Whitman, Mark Twain and Will Rogers.

My personal favorite quote: We made too many wrong mistakes.

Much wisdom in that.

RIP, Lawrence Peter “Yogi” Berra (May 12, 1925 – September 22, 2015)

Proud Dad Moment

“Merkle’s Boner! Merkle’s Boner!” Sean, my son, shouted at the TV to a surprised and somewhat horrified group of relatives last night.

For those of you that are not up to speed on a play that happened a mere 107 years ago, “Merkle’s Boner” is perhaps one of the most infamous (unless you are a Chicago Cubs fan) plays in baseball history.

In the heat of a pennant race, on September 23, 1908, with the scored tied 1-1 and two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning, Moose McCormick was on at third base and Fred Merkle on at first base for the New York Giants. Al Birdwell rocketed a single into center field plating McCormick for the apparent winning run.

Giant’s fans stormed the field as was the custom after every game because the exit was out in centerfield and the Giant’s rookie first baseman, Fred Merkle, never got to second base mostly due to self preservation from the the on coming fans.

Cubs second baseman and future Hall of Famer, Johnny Evers, noticed this and called to centerfielder Solly Hoffman to thrown him the ball. With the Giants and their fans celebrating around him, Evers recevied the ball from Hoffman and promptly stepped on second base forcing out Merkle.

By rule, this would mean the run would not count and the score would remain tied. It was thusly ruled and the game was then scheduled to be replayed at the end of the season should the Giants or Cubs not be the clear winners of the pennant. Well, you can guess what happened. The Cubs and Giants ended the season with identical 98-55 records. The Cubs, this is before the Curse of the Billy Goat, won the game 4-2 and went on to win the 1908 World Series.


Now back to August 9, 2015 and Sean’s reaction.

Our family was asembled in the living room watching the end of the Cincinnati Reds/Arizona Diamondbacks game which ended with a bases loaded hit by rookie Chris Owings. The official MLB record says, “Chris Owings singles on a sharp line drive to center fielder Billy Hamilton. Paul Goldschmidt scores. David Peralta to 3rd. Jake Lamb to 2nd.”

Only Jake Lamb and David Peralta never made it to second and third, respectively. Just like in the Merkle game, an alert fielder, this time shortstop Brandon Phillips retrieved the ball, albeit from a security guard, and then tossed it to Hamilton who by this time was near second base. Hamilton caught the ball then touched second base. He then threw the ball to shortstop Eugenio Suarez, who was now standing on first base. Suarez then tossed it third baseman Ivan DeJesus who walked across the field and touched third.

Now this whole thing is just a mess.

First, shame on Peralta and Lamb for not touching the next base. Despite the result (a D-backs win), this was really dumb on each of their parts as the only people storming the field were their own teammates. I personally feel the “walk off” win celebration in the Major Leagues has gotten a bit out of hand.

Second, Phillips, or really Hamilton, should have retrieved the ball himself. Once the security guard touched the ball, it is likely a dead ball, although I am not 100 percent sure about it becasue it was in the field of play and not in the stands. Clearly, if the guard was in the stands and out of play, it is a dead ball and the rest is moot, but it is possible that by ground rule, the security guard on the field might, in fact, be in play. That said, if it is not a ground rule in Arizona then, it is a dead ball and the next paragraph, as mentioned, is moot.

Third, why did the Reds touch second base first? As they needed two outs, not just one, they needed to first force out Peralta at third before forcing out Lamb at second. Touching second base negated the force out at third. They should have first tossed the ball to DeJesus at third for the second out of the inning and then to Phillips, or whoever was at second, perhaps Hamilton. Had the Reds done this, the scoring would have been as follows: 6-5-8, or more precisely, SG (for security guard)-6-5-8. EIther way, it is a pretty odd double play combination.

Fourth, it turns out that all of this is moot because rule 5.08(b) in the 2015 Official Baseball Rules (4.09(b) in previous editions) reads, “When the winning run is scored in the last half-inning of a regulation game, or in the last half of an extra inning, as the result of a base on balls, hit batter or any other play with the bases full which forces the runner on third to advance, the umpire shall not declare the game ended until the runner forced to advance from third has touched home base and the batter-runner has touched first base.” I hope this rule gets changed, it should require all runners touch the next base to which they are forced.

Fifth and lastly, I am very proud of my son for recognizing the situation and making the connection to the Merkle play. And, that is really why I wrote this post.

On the Patriot Fans, Deflategate and Cheating

First of all, I have absolutely no doubt that, had steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs existed during Babe Ruth’s career, Babe Ruth would not only have used them, he would have used more of them than Barry Bonds. I don’t understand how anyone can be confused about this. The central theme of Babe Ruth’s life, which is the fulcrum of virtually every anecdote and every event of his career, is that Babe Ruth firmly believed that the rules did not apply to Babe Ruth.
– via Bill James in Slate Magazine

It is no surprise that many (if not most) star athletes will do anything they can to get an edge. Tom Brady is clearly no different. It does not make him a bad person, but I find it absurd that many Patriot’s fans seem to be in complete denial about it.

When the story first broke, the narrative of the Pats fans was basically, “Tom didn’t know.” Well, now it is pretty clear he did. The narrative is now, “There’s no direct evidence,” and “Even if he did it, everyone else does.”

Is the evidence circumstantial? Yes, but people are convicted on circumstancial evidence in this country every day. In fact, Pats fans will use circumstantial evidence in support of their arguement. “Oh, yeah, of course you think Brady did it, you are a fill-in-the-name-of-your-team fan!” Is that circumstantial and perhaps evidence of bias? Yes. Does it mean Brady is innocent? No.

As for the “everyone else is doing it” defense — Well, it didn’t work with my Mom and it sure doesn’t work here. In fact the most damning evidence I have seen is this chart:

This is for five years worth of data. I am sorry, but there is no way that great coaching or even dismissal of all running backs that fumble twice can explain it.


My only point is this — Tom Brady and the Patriots purposefully deflated footballs to try to gain a competitive advantage. Period. Full stop.

  • Could other teams also be doing it? Yes.
  • Are other teams doing things to gain an advantage that are outside the rules? Yes.
  • Is it a dumb rule? Maybe.
  • Does the NFL share blame for not having a sensible process to enforce the rule? Yes.
  • Is the penalty excessive? I don’t know. Probably.

All these are obfuscations to the main point and the central question.

I am willing to on record in saying that assuming the NFL creates a process to enforce this rule beginning next season and the Patriots continue to hold onto the football at their already amazing rate, I will be convinced that I am wrong and will repent.

So, Pats fans, what will it be? Are you willing to repent if the Patriots fall back to pack and start fumbling at a rate of say less than 150 plays per fumble over the course of the next three to five seasons?

Slides from MAX-558 Healing Leadership

Below are the slides from my session at Sage Summit 2014 entitle Healing Leadership. I am indebted to both Howard Hansen and Steve Geske for their remarkable work on this topic and their willingness to allow me to present it. I hope I did it justice.

For more  this topic and to join in the conversation, join the Healing Leaders Facebook page at

In addition, you can by their book, Healing Leadership – A Survival Guide for the Enlightened Leader at Amazon. I give it my personal guarantee, if you do not like it I will buy it back from you.

Something Ralph Kiner Taught Me

Screen-Shot-2014-02-16-at-10.48.31-AMHad he not passed away last month, today would have been the first game of the season where Ralph Kiner would have joined Gary Thorne and Ron Darling in the broadcast booth at CitiField in Flushing.

To honor his memory I share with you the following poem he taught me:

These are the saddest of possible words:
Tinker to Evers to Chance.”
Trio of bear cubs, and fleeter than birds,
Tinker and Evers and Chance.
Ruthlessly pricking our gonfalon bubble,
Making a Giant hit into a double –
Words that are heavy with nothing but trouble:
“Tinker to Evers to Chance.”



The Boss for a Day: Another reason to love my job

In July I had the honor and privilege to deliver 14 sessions at the  customer and partner conference held annually by my company, Sage. In addition to my speaking duties at Sage Summit 2013, I had the opportunity to participate in the third and most likely last performance by an band consisting of Sage business partners and employees. The band was aptly named The Usual Suspects, due to the fact that many of the same performers have returned each year.

UsualSuspectsThis years line up included our fearless band leader David Boothby on lead guitar and vocals, my long-time friend and colleague Apryl Hanson and Jennifer Parkinson as the lead female vocalist, Jeff Gregorec, Greg Tirico, Bill Parkinson and Sage EVP Joe Langner alternated on drums, Renato DeGasperis on rhythm guitar, Bob Reinking on bass, Ken Kennedy on keyboards, and Joe Carroll on bongos and other percussion. In addition, we were joined by a few professionals including a three piece horn section we dubbed The Bad-Ass Brass.

As a guest vocalist, I sang the lead vocal on two Bruce Springsteen songs, Born to Run and Tenth Avenue Freeze Out. Videos of these two follow:

The closest we came to trainwrecking was just after the sax solo, but we pulled it together. I felt a little bad about this until I saw a professional act actually do it. I give Fun. credit cause man, it is a tough song.

Lastly, here is our rendition of Tenth Avenue Freeze Out which was just too fun for words to perform.

Don’t worry, I am not quitting my day job!