Leaders are Learners

Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.John F. Kennedy

A leadership position is not a destination. No one should “arrive” at a leadership position and just sit tight. A leadership position does not make you a leader, it merely gives you the opportunity to grow into one.

To grow as a leader you must learn. Continually.

The most successful people learn something new everyday and so do the most effective leaders. It doesn’t have to be an epiphany every day but you should add to your knowledge base each day.

If you want to be a better manager then learn something about stuff, if you’re intent is to become a better leader then learn something about people. Learning something about people in general is good, learning something about your people specifically is great.

Invest time each day to learn what motivates your people. Learn what their goals are, discover their challenges and even more important, how you as a leader might help them overcome those challenges.

The best leaders are not afraid to show the gaps in their knowledge and the very best leaders do not believe it is a weakness to learn from the people they lead. It’s pretty tough to learn when you’re struggling to keep your “I already knew that face” on.

So open your eyes, open your mind and perhaps even open your heart to new discoveries every single day. Never forget this basic leadership fact: when you stop learning you likely stop leading too.

Never stop leading!

The Folly of Accepting Failure

When is failure not really failure?

Let’s look at some of the biggest “failures” in history to determine if we can answer that question.

Harland David Sanders. This guy knew chicken! He had himself a great recipe but not everyone agreed. Perhaps better known as Colonel Sanders of Kentucky Fried Chicken fame, Sanders had a hard time selling his chicken at first. In fact, his famous secret chicken recipe was rejected 1009 times before a restaurant accepted it. 1009 rejections, or “failures” and yet no one can deny the Colonel’s incredible success. I guess this isn’t really an example of failure.

Akio Morita. Not exactly a household name but maybe you have heard of the little company he built. It’s known as Sony. Sony’s first product was a rice cooker that didn’t actually cook rice so much as burn it, less than 100 units were sold. This setback didn’t stop him and his partners as they worked to create a multi-billion dollar company. I guess this isn’t really an example of failure either.

Thomas Edison. Early on, teachers told Edison he was “too dumb to learn anything.” Work was just a bad, he was fired from his first two jobs for not being good enough. As an inventor, Edison made 1000 unsuccessful attempts at inventing the light bulb. 1000 unsuccessful attempts by the guy who eventually gave us light. I guess this isn’t really an example of failure after all.

Abraham Lincoln: While today he is remembered as one of the greatest leaders ever, honest Abe’s life wasn’t so easy. In his youth he went to war as a captain and returned a private. (failure of that magnitude is truly amazing) Lincoln didn’t stop failing there, however. He started numerous failed businesses and was defeated in several runs for public office. But then he became President, the rest as they say is history. If this is what failure looks like we should all be so lucky to fail.

Vincent Van Gogh. During his lifetime, Van Gogh sold only one painting, and this was to a friend and only for a very small amount of money. While Van Gogh never appeared to be a success during his lifetime, he plugged away with painting, sometimes starving to complete his over 800 known works. Today, they bring in hundreds of millions. Sometimes you may not have the opportunity to experience your own success but that does not mean you’re a failure either.

The Beatles. These guys haven’t made a record in a while but nobody can really deny the lasting power of this incredible group; still popular with around the world today. Yet when they were just starting out, a recording company told them no. They were told “we don’t like your sound, and guitar music is on the way out,” two things the rest of the world couldn’t have disagreed with more. The lesson here is that failure doesn’t last…. unless we allow it to.

Babe Ruth. You probably know Babe Ruth because of his home run record, (714 during his career), or the candy bar NOT named after him, but along with all those home runs came a huge number of strikeouts (1,330 in all). In fact, for decades he held the record for strikeouts. When asked about this he simply said, “Every strike brings me closer to the next home run.” Yet another lesson in the incredible power of perseverance.

Coca-Cola. My personal favorite example of perseverance however comes from a company that I do business with nearly everyday. Coca-Cola sold 25 bottles of Coke their first year. It would have been so easy to simply accept their failure and give up. They kept going. Things worked out okay. Today 1.7 billion servings of Coke, (in bottles, cans, and glasses) are served each DAY.

Each of these examples provide a lesson in the power of fortitude, the power of never never never giving up. Imagine if these people had given up just one day sooner. We might be sitting in the dark, listening to ABBA on a 78 RPM record, eating bad chicken, and drinking water in a divided USA.

Failure, as it turns out is only failure when we fail to try again. Never never give up and most importantly, never never never give up on you!

Ordinary Leadership Mistakes

If you’re merely a ordinary leader then it’s likely you make ordinary mistakes. They are easy to make, that’s the bad news. The good news is that they are also easy to avoid. As in so many areas of life, the difference between ordinary and extraordinary is just that little extra.

Here are a few “extras” to help you become an extraordinary leader.

If things are more important to you than people then you will always have severe problems getting commitment from your people.

It feels like I’ve said this a million times but I’ll say it yet again; leadership is about people. If you’re a leader then it is absolutely essential you understand that you lead people, not buildings, budgets, processes, or plans. You manage all that, but you lead people.

If your people feel, even a little bit, like they are merely the objects you use to build your own success then they will not commit to your or your organization. That’s why it’s so incredibly vital that you SHOW them how important they are as people. Not only as employees, not only as “team members” but as individual people. This is a daily must do for anyone serious about truly leading.

Do not allow yourself to become isolated by people close to you.

The higher up the leadership ladder you go the more likely it becomes that people will try to please you. They may want to please you so much that they “hide” unpleasant information from you.

This did in John Akers at IBM. He was one of the most respected CEOs in the industry but was blinded by people who told him only what he wanted to hear. He literally didn’t see IBM’s near-downfall coming and became the first CEO that IBM ever fired.

You obviously need people on your team who will tell you the truth but nothing beats unfiltered direct information. That big desk you sit behind can block a lot of what you need to know from ever reaching you. Get out from behind the desk and purposely explore your organization.

See firsthand what’s going on. Talk to the people, your people, who are making it happen. Talk to some customers, both happy and unhappy ones. You may not be able to invest a ton of time doing this but you must invest some. Frequently!

Select People for Loyalty, Not Competence.

No, no, no. I’m NOT suggesting that you hire incompetent people. I’m just saying you should value those who can demonstrate loyalty and team-playing over those who are more competent but possess huge egos and don’t play well with others.

Big egos build big silos that can cripple your organization. They can lead to the inability of even the smartest people to work together. You may say some of this is normal “competition,” which pits employees against each other, but a lot of it happens when being smart seems to be rewarded more than playing well with others. The end result: A lot of smart backstabbers.

That’s not a culture that you can afford to promote, you need people to have each other’s back, not be sticking something in it. So encourage and reward loyalty, to you, the organization and most importantly, to each other.

People Need Feedback

We all need people who will give us feedback. That’s how we improve. – Bill Gates

According to 1,400 executives polled by The Ken Blanchard Companies, failing to provide feedback is the most common mistake that leaders make. When you don’t provide prompt feedback to your people, you’re depriving them of the opportunity to improve their performance.

Lots of people have lost their jobs for the simply reason that their boss was too big of a chicken to give them the feedback they needed to improve. Yes, just because you’re a boss doesn’t mean you can’t be a chicken too.

Have you ever been in a position where you had to let someone go? Were they shocked to discover that their performance wasn’t sufficient to keep their job? Then it’s most likely that you failed to provide them the feedback the needed to improve their performance. No one should ever be blindsided by their own firing, they should see it coming from miles and months away.

When Bill Gates said “We all need feedback” he truly meant “all.” No one sees themselves as other people see them. We have the ability to justify behavior in ourselves that we wouldn’t tolerate in other people. We use the “yea, but” defense to let ourselves off the hook way too easily.

Even your most seasoned people need feedback. They need another set of eyes, another set of values, and a different batch of experiences to provide them with other views that they can’t get from a mirror.

It’s not just your people who need feedback. You as a leader need feedback too. If your people see you as an Authentic Serving Leader they will likely provide you with at least some of the feedback you need. If they see you as a boss you’re in big trouble because you won’t be receiving any feedback from the people in the best position to provide it to you. They probably won’t trust you enough to be truthful with you.

If you’re in a leadership position then you owe it to your people to help them grow by giving them thoughtful, meaningful, relevant feedback. Consistently. Do not “store up” feedback for their annual review, provide them with useful information on their performance, both good and not so good, that they can use throughout the year.

When you provide the needed feedback you eliminate mistakes, minimize stress, both yours and your people’s, and potentially grow future leaders.

If you’re truly a leader you also owe it to yourself to allow your people to provide you with the feedback YOU need to grow. You simply must have people on your team who trust you enough to be honest with you. You can only build that trust by not “shooting the messenger” when they provide you with feedback. Feel free to disagree if you must but don’t do it defensively. And never never never retaliate for feedback meant to help you, whether it’s accurate feedback or not.

But….. and this is a BIG but; to do any of this you must get over your own fear of confrontation, of being thought of as a hard ass, or a jerk. If you’re truly an Authentic Serving Leader you will invest the time required to give your people feedback in a way that they can accept and use, to their benefit and yours.

If you’re frustrated with your people constantly making the same mistakes then STOP being frustrated and START providing the kind of feedback that leads to real behavioral change.

That’s what leaders do.


What’s the Rush?

Haste makes waste.

That truism is never more true than when it comes to problem solving. When you rush to solve a problem you run the risk of actually making the problem worse. You may misidentify the problem and end up “solving” a symptom. It could appear that the problem is gone but it’s seldom gone for long. When it comes back it’s often bigger and it’s often more expensive to solve.

Misidentifying a problem, failing to discover the root cause of an issue, is the single biggest mistake a problem-solver can make. Yet it’s made all the time. I think it’s because too many people aim to instantly fix a problem.

We live in a world where Minute Rice just isn’t fast enough anymore. We want everything now, immediately, if not sooner. We especially want problems solved, preferably before anyone knows there’s a problem.

Sometimes it’s best to slow down and live with a problem for a while.

When we live with a problem for a bit we get to know it, we understand it more. We know it’s origins and it’s likely our solution will be much better. Not only better but permanent.

Slowing down does not mean doing nothing. Study the problem, discuss it, look at it from different angles. Learn from it, above all, learn about it. The best problem-solvers have patience and they know enough to never mistake procrastination for that patience. Never forget, there is a difference between moving a little more slowly and not moving at all.

Do not slow down because you don’t know what to do, slow down so that you will know with certainty what needs to be done.

Some people see more in a walk around the block than others see in a trip around the world. Great problem-solvers, like great leaders, walk slowly through the halls, they listen, watch and learn with every step.

Now a good number of people reading this post will say slowing down is a luxury that they can’t afford. They have to “get it done” ASAP! Time is money! You know how it goes.

But you also know that if you don’t have the time to fix it right the first time you’ll never have the time to do it a second time. A shortage of time is EXACTLY the reason you should slow down.

So save yourself some time, slow down and solve the problem once.

There’s no rush to do it twice.

When Things Really Matter

In a Major League Baseball season there are 162 regular season games. Pretty much every team will win 60 and every team will lose 60. It’s what happens in the other 42 that matters. It’s knowing which 42 games will make the difference that really matters.

The most effective leaders know that not every decision is life, or business changing. What makes them effective is knowing which ones may be and which one most definitely are. The most effective leaders know which 42 games they MUST win.

They know that when they are in the middle of one of those “must wins” that they must lead, most likely from the front. They are less likely to delegate and more likely to micro-manage. Actually effective leaders wouldn’t admit to micro-managing, they are in a “must win” situation and they are just “making sure.”

But what exactly is so critically urgent that an effective leader wouldn’t dare delegate it? Not much as it turns out should be so urgent that it can’t be delegated… or just eliminated.

A long time ago I was promoted to my first management position as Sales Manager for a soda pop company. Not too long after that promotion I received a 4:00am phone call that our delivery drivers had just gone out on strike and everyone in management had to come in immediately.

Shortly after that I had this neat new uniform and a spot on a truck delivering pop to grocery stores and bars. I wasn’t meant for that kind of work to begin with but I was really unprepared to do that all day and then my real job at night.

A short day was 18 hours and even with that I fell behind. I lived in my office for several weeks and still I fell further behind. My desk was a sea of paper stacked several inches high.

I was overwhelmed.

One morning about 2:00am I went into the warehouse and grabbed one of those big trash dumpsters on wheels. I pushed it to my office and threw every piece of paper on my desk away.
A few hours later as my colleagues begin passing my office they would all look at my desk in amazement with the same question; What happened?

I said only that I had a very productive night.

Here’s the truly amazing part, with the exception of a couple of documents that needed signing I never heard a word about anything I had thrown away. Not a word.

It was then that I realized this leadership truth: never underestimate the absolute unimportance of almost everything you do. Most of the things we stress over just don’t really matter. There are few things in life that are truly important and we miss too many of them by focusing on the stuff that isn’t important. We fall victim to the “urgent curse,” doing what seems to be urgent rather than doing the truly important.

We try to focus on too much and forget that “over focusing” is like wearing Milk Bone underwear in a dog eat dog world. We’re going to be eaten alive and it ain’t going to be pretty.

Successful leaders don’t mistake the urgent for the truly important.

As a leader you should not be doing anything that someone else on your team could be doing. If you’re doing anything that someone else could do then your not doing something that only you can. You, I’m sorry to say, are holding back productivity in every direction.

You have 120 games that are going to happen with you or without you. Some will be won and some will be lost and it won’t really matter.

It’s in those 120 games that you build your future leaders. Those are the times that hold the decisions you allow others to make. Those are the times when you just get out of the way and let other leaders stretch their leadership wings. The outcome won’t matter much. What will matter is that THEIR actions and decisions led to an outcome. They can see the results of THEIR decisions and learn from them.

When their day comes to lead the way in the “must win” 42 games you will have prepared them to succeed.

That’s Leadership!

Do You Have A Vision?

Here’s an interesting if a bit risky experiment for you. Walk into a room full of people that you have never met and yell out “follow me” and run out of the room. See how many people follow you.

Next, walk into a room full of people who know you well, don’t say anything to anyone other then yelling the same “follow me” and then run out of the room. See how many people follow you.

I’m betting the numbers will be almost the same. The people who don’t know you may have some disparaging comments about you, then again, so may the people who know you. But the group that knows you may just shrug and wonder what you’re up to now.

Both groups however will have this in common: they are unlikely to follow you without first knowing where you’re going. Even people who know you well, they might even trust you, but to follow you they need to know where you’re going.

So now let me ask you this. As a leader, do you have a vision? For yourself, your organization and for the people you lead?

I hope your answer is yes. Let’s assume that it is. Here’s a second question. Do your people know and buy into your vision?

If you’re answer to that question is yes as well, then congratulations are in order. You’re set!

You’re also in a very small minority. The sad and challenging reality is that too many, way too many, leaders have an “idea” of where they might be going but have nothing so formal and serious as a vision statement.

If you don’t know where you’re going, or can’t articulate it to your people then why in the world would you expect them to follow you?

The good news is that you, anyone as a matter of fact, can develop an effective vision statement that shows you and those who you would lead exactly what your (and their) destination looks like.

To write a vision statement, focus on the basics of your mission statement and extrapolate; where is your organization, you, or your people going to be five years from now? What will you, your organization or your people have accomplished?

It might sound something like this for your organization:

In five years XYZ Company will be the leading provider of healthy snacks for unhealthy people. We will do this through our committed employees showing care and concern for every single customer we touch. We’ll “Wow” our customers and competitors alike and we will be a joy to do business with. We’ll work in a supportive caring environment that makes “work” fun and allows no doubt about the fact that XYZ is a great place to work and a wonderful place to do business. We will be a business where every customer is served with a smile and positive attitude.

Something like that. Make it meaningful, make it realistic, make it attainable with effort.

Once you have a vision statement you must share it with everyone. Your people, your customers, anyone who will listen. You must share it often. If you share it once it will die a quick death. The only way to keep your vision alive is to share it often.

Expect your people and anyone else you share it with to hold you accountable to it. While that can be scary it is also a great thing. Accountability will be a huge asset in your efforts to achieve your vision.

Above all, YOU must believe and commit to your vision statement. If you don’t then others won’t either. Your vision statement won’t be worth the paper it’s printed on.

So, let me ask you again, do you have a vision?

If you do then tell the world. You might be amazed how many people will be willing to help you get there.