Archives for April 2010

Can Leadership Skills Be Taught?

Have you ever wondered what it takes to be a leader?  Are leaders born, bred or brewed?  Does it take a certain personality style, environment, or natural talent to lead?  What’s led to the crisis of leadership that we see today?  I woke up early this morning pondering these questions.

I’d recently finished reading an eBook called “The LeadChange Revolution,” which documents the insights and commitments of a small group of people who attended a leadership unconference earlier this year, the Leader Palooza.  I found it inspiring, encouraging, and engaging.  But I was left with a big question burning in my mind…  Why are there so few character-based leaders out there?  In my decades spent in and around corporate America, the majority of the leaders I’ve encountered are driven by the bottom line; profits matter more than people, no matter what they say.

The Lead Change Group is dedicated to applying character-based leadership to make a difference.  They are committed to supporting one another and holding one another accountable.  They seek to inspire others to be better; to raise the bar a notch higher than they’d held it before.  When I read this section of the eBook, I have to admit, I thought immediately of a passage in Exodus 17, when the Amalekites attacked Israel at Rephidim.  While Joshua fought the battle, Moses watched over it with the staff of God in his hands.

11 As long as Moses held up his hands, the Israelites were winning, but whenever he lowered his hands, the Amalekites were winning. 12 When Moses’ hands grew tired, they took a stone and put it under him and he sat on it. Aaron and Hur held his hands up—one on one side, one on the other—so that his hands remained steady till sunset. 13 So Joshua overcame the Amalekite army with the sword.

Moses had led his people with character and strength, despite the fact that he was not a confident or charismatic man.  He was not born a leader.  He was thrust into that position.  He had to be taught (in this case, by God himself) how to lead.  Yet, he inspired the people around him and engaged them in his efforts.  Joshua fought for him, while Aaron and Hur supported him, literally!

Now, some individuals are born with the natural talents and abilities that make it easy for them to become leaders.  People naturally gravitate to them due to their out-going personalities, dynamic people skills, etc.  But does that mean the rest of us can’t be leaders?  Not at all!

As a martial artist, I watch children who are being taught character-based leadership skills, and I love being a part of it.  I purposefully participate in the “junior classes” for two reasons.  I can serve as a role model to show what’s expected of the kids in class; but more importantly, I get to help shape the way they view the world and interact with other people.  We teach them the skills they need to be the future generation of character-based leaders.

They learn respect for others and humility for themselves.  Senior belts (individuals with a higher rank) are shown respect by bowing to them and thanking them for their instruction.  They are addressed as “sir” or “ma’am” as appropriate, and the senior belts bow and respond in kind to show their own humility.  They know that they are no better than anyone else in the room.

They learn self-discipline by pushing their minds and bodies beyond the point where they are inclined to give up.  The kids are taught to value truth and honesty by not short-changing themselves or others.  100 jumping jacks are 100 jumping jacks; not 90 or 95.  Once you learn to obey authority, then you earn the right to exert it yourself; not before.

The perseverance this requires eventually instills a confidence that wasn’t there before.  They learn that they are capable of more than they imagined, just as we all are.  But they also learn that they’re not going to get everything right all the time, and that it’s alright to make mistakes.  Failure is an important part of the learning process, and they learn to embrace it rather than being ashamed of it.

They learn proper goal-setting, as they understand what’s required of them in order to advance to the next rank.  They learn to take large goals (earning a black belt) and break them down into smaller, more manageable milestones (advance to the next belt level) with distinct and specific actions (master the next technique).

They learn to recognize and deal with bullies so that they are prepared to face conflict in their lives.  One of our teacher’s favorite saying is that “bullies are people with problems,” and you’ll encounter them at every age and in every environment.  Even grown-ups face bullies sometimes in the form of unreasonable bosses, demanding clients, and irritable colleagues.  The kids learn techniques for disarming the situation, so that they are not brought down by the hostile actions of others.

Best of all, the kids sense that they are part of a close-knit community.  It doesn’t matter where they go, whenever they meet another martial artist there is an immediate and undeniable bond that exists.  The world no longer revolves around them.  They see and learn that they are part of a much larger whole that is happy to have them there.

In “The LeadChange Revolution,” Susan Mazza communicated the desire to be a “real” leader, and that she’d gained a new appreciation of what that meant.  Real leadership is Respectful, Ethical, Accountable and Loving, and it takes someone with strength of character to be a “real” leader.  But anyone is capable of becoming a character-based leader.  They’re not a special breed, set apart.  They are brewed in the coffee grounds of life, making choices and decisions that are infused with integrity, a desire to be more than they already are, and a passion to inspire others.  Are you ready to raise the bar?

Musical Chairs and Slippery Slopes

Musical Chairs Pictures, Images and PhotosIn the fall of last year, I found out that I would be losing my job working for a family-owned company that I loved. My job loss was due to no fault of my own. The company was restructuring, and in the game of musical chairs that took place as a result, I lost.

I had a counterpart in another country that I had worked with very closely throughout the six years I’d been there and I was grateful that, if one of us had to go, it was me.  While we lament the 10% national employment rate we’ve been experiencing in our country of late, his country had dealt with 16% in recent years.  He’d also been with the company much longer than I had, so his experience working in other companies and adapting to distinct corporate cultures was much more limited than mine.  To me, it seemed that I’d have an easier time redefining my career yet again.  Why is that?  Well…  I’d had to do it before, many times.

Prior to this last job, I’d owned my own small consulting firm for 16 years. That had been my first “real” job, started at the age of 19. As a result, I’d been in and out of a variety of companies in totally different industries. So, my exposure to corporate cultures and small businesses alike was vast compared to many other people. I counted more than 30 companies as my clients, ranging from your large, international corporation to the small local utilities company to the even smaller local garden club.

Imagine my surprise when I couldn’t figure out how to get started this time. I was out of the loop in terms of where to find jobs now. On top of that, I was finding that to apply to job postings, I had to pick and choose from my skill sets. The totality of the experience I’d gained over the years needed to be compartmentalized and parceled out depending on the job I wanted to apply for. It seemed the same to me as letting people know that I had two feet, but not the legs to move them; or two hands, but not the arms that they require to be useful. I have both a heart and a head, and they work in combination. Why would anyone want to employ one part, and ignore that the others exist?

At that point, I had the good fortune of learning that social media had changed the way the people find work now. While the job boards still exist and there are still recruiters to call, social media enabled job seekers and business owners alike to show what they are made of. The availability of social networking sites and the visibility of the internet allow us to share who we are to the wider world. We can establish our expertise in our chosen profession, make connections with people, and give a sense of what we value without ever having to leave the comfort of our own homes.

Now that sounded great to me. But I quickly realized that without answering certain questions for myself, I could never give a clear impression of who I was to anyone else. Things like the age-old question of “who did I want to be when I grew up?” as well as “what did I want to be doing with the next 5 years of my life?” and “what was I willing to do to support my family?” Some of these questions were easily answered, but others were not.

For instance, I knew that I did not want to discount any of my business skill sets, but it seemed that if I didn’t focus on just one of them, my chances of finding employment would be much slimmer. So, that led to the next question. “What happens if I refuse to be less than who I am?” Amazingly enough, the answer came very quickly (much like sliding down a slippery slope)… I’d have to figure out how to make them a marketable package, which most likely meant offering them as consulting services. Oops…  Had I just talked myself into starting a new company? It seems I had… For it was only in that way that I could be true to the sum of my work experience and life passions.

While I had originally seen social media as a means of marketing myself as a prospective employee in someone else’s company, I soon saw its value to starting my own. So my initial use of social networking was purely to let people get to know me, to see my servant leadership, and to appreciate my expertise and knowledge. All of these things would be beneficial for my growing company as well as for potential employers to see.

Then I began using my network as a means of communicating what my business was doing, and as a means of sharing useful, relevant information with my audience. However, my main focus is still on building relationships, because that’s what “social networking” is all about. And whether this leads to a burgeoning company or an offer of employment somewhere, the exercise will never have been wasted; for I am richer for coming to know all of you…

Leadership Thoughts from “How to Train Your Dragon”

I had the pleasure today of going to the movies; one of my favorite luxuries.  Thankfully, I have children.  That means that I get to see any movie I want, without being embarrassed by being an adult alone in a “kid’s movie.”  This works well for me because I’ve found that most PG-13 movies are too much for me.  I much prefer the creativity and inventiveness found in many G and PG movies.  In the past 5 years, I’ve seen one R-rated film (on a flight home from a business trip), and I was frankly appalled, not only at its content, but the lack of creativity that inspired it.

So, what did I see today?  A PG-rated film called “How to Train Your Dragon.”  Would I recommend it?  You bet!!  Let me tell you why…

The story centers around a boy named “Hiccup,” who is drastically different from everyone around him, including his own family.  They are Vikings, who eat, sleep and breathe dragon-slaying.  Everyone in the village is big and brawny.  But Hiccup?  Not so much…  He wants to be like everyone else, but just doesn’t seem to have it in him.

During the course of the movie (without revealing too much detail), Hiccup befriends someone totally foreign to him. Much like the Good Samaritan of the New Testament, he chooses to help someone he’s been taught all of his life to fear and hate.  Not only does he go against the tradition of his people, but he does it at great cost to himself.  He comes to realize that the things he’s been taught all of his life have been based on misinformation.  People fought and died believing one thing, only for Hiccup (and us) to find out that they were wrong; they had misunderstood the motivation of their enemy for years.  With understanding, came trust, and with trust, came peace.

To bring his people to that place of understanding, Hiccup not only had to accept that he was different and stop trying to be like everyone else, but he had to embrace the things that made him different.  In accepting the strengths and weaknesses that were uniquely his, he was able to bridge gaps that enabled him to establish peace where there had been none before.

Change was just one of many things that scared Hiccup.  But, as with all great leaders, he recognized a need that he was clearly suited to fill.  So, he set aside his fear and did the things that needed doing.  This ultimately cost him his family, his village and his closest friend.  Yet, despite the personal sacrifice required, he stayed with it to the end.

As with Hiccup, leaders have no idea how things will turn out in the end.  They only know that the way is uncharted, and sometimes it’s scary.  (As one character in the movie comments, “pack extra undies.”)  We also must be willing and able to look at others, and value their diversity and commonality as well.  Hiccup tells a friend at one point in the movie “I looked at him, and saw myself.”

We are each uniquely suited to do specific things because of our individual differences.  So, what’s your difference?  Do you embrace it, or hide it?  To be a leader, you must recognize and embrace your difference; only then can people truly know who you are and what you’re capable of.   And you must value the unique traits in those who follow you; for only then can you accomplish great things, together…