Author Note: I wrote this post for a leadership blog. I think the content stands up along side the best in “leadership literature.” I didn’t point it out in the original article, but I will here, that three of the four interviewees are women. What I learned doing these interviews is that good leaders approach leadership the same way, regardless of their gender. Hooray for the human experience. -DT
In leadership and management we love to look at best practices. In leadership literature we love to look at the people themselves for insights into what makes a great leader. People are so interesting! Here are my top-line takeaways from some interviews I’ve done recently with a diverse group of leaders including a newly minted COO, the President of a boutique ad agency, an Air Force Lt General and the Chief of Security for Microsoft. Despite the differences in their responsibilities, their wisdom boils down to some glaring similarities we can all learn from.
Leaders Are Problem Solvers
Leaders speak more frequently about their challenges and how they overcame them than the average employee in my experience. They’re more conscious of the problems because they’re intensely aware that it’s their job to fix them, and when they succeed, they take pride in a problem well-solved. Patricia Koopersmith, COO at The Clearing, described her strategy for seeing possibilities in every problem this way, “I’ve learned to ask ‘why not’ instead of always asking ‘why’.”
Leaders Master Many Styles
Leaders know that different situations require different reactions from them, and so they become intentionally adept at learning to respond in the most useful way possible to any given situation. They’ve learned that their effectiveness isn’t always about what they want or like to do, but how well they read and react to the reality at hand. This requires them to go outside their comfort zone and learn new ways of being. And their comfort zones aren’t always what you’d expect. In my interviews it was the Ad Agency President who admitted to being a naturally command-and-control type and the Air Force General who acknowledged that her starting point was collaboration. As Karen Riorden, President at Smith Gifford, said, she found her success in “flexing my leadership style back and forth all day long. [I like] being the bad cop like in the financial contract conversation I’ll have this afternoon, and then sitting down to do a six-month review and mentoring session with a junior account person.”
Leaders Care, Genuinely and Passionately, For Others
Every leader I spoke to spent a good portion of the conversation talking about how much they enjoyed mentoring and developing talent. From recruiting trips to interviews, to informal mentoring, each of them saw themselves in an ongoing chain of human capital. They each acknowledged gratitude for those who’d helped them and expressed a deep commitment for helping pull up the next generation of leaders and high-performers. Mike Howard, Microsoft Chief of Security and ex CIA agent, took to heart the wisdom of one of his mentors and internalized this truth, “Once you’re in a position of authority you become more selfless than selfish. You need to take care of people.”
Leaders Are On An Inner Journey
More than most, leaders have a meaningful view of themselves over time and in relation to others. They self-reflect easily and openly, and acknowledge failure and weakness as important stepping-stones on their path to success. This ability to take responsibility for their choices and let go of excuses is a skill that must be developed consciously. Each leader I spoke to reached a point in their career where they could not rely on mentors and superiors to smooth the way, and that is when they took full ownership of their own journey. A case in point is Lt Gen Judith Fedder, US Air Force, who discovered that even times when she has stars on her shoulders, she will be confronted with difficulties that require her to stretch beyond the rule sets and priorities and people she’s used to. Reflecting on these trying times, she summed up how she viewed her inner challenges this way, “Some things have to be hard to be worthwhile.”
I’m very grateful to these four amazing people for sharing their wisdom so I could pass it on to you. It is my hope that if you are reading this, their stories give you courage to stay on the difficult, but rewarding, path of leadership. I’m always looking for new interview subjects to profile. If you have an important leadership story to tell, contact me. Maybe your story is next.
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