Ron's Material Leadership Blog
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Thursday, November 1, 2007
A while back I mentioned that I was planning to transition the focus of this blog from the internal nature of a leader toward the purpose of a leader. In other words moving from self leadership to other leadership. As we make this transition I am compelled to comment on why I spent so long on self leadership.
Frankly the main reason is I have seen leadership lived out poorly in others as well as myself. We must learn to lead ourselves well before we ever consider leading others. To do otherwise sets you up for failure. In some cases very public failure.
My early leadership experiences were BAD. Yes bad with a capital B. I want to share two of them with you as a testament to what can happen to those willing to do the work to learn to lead.
When I was starting my senior year in college, I attempted to take on a significant leadership role…
This story was instrumental as a case of BAD leadership for me. Our engineering school had a special welcome for incoming frosh into the program. This is the stuff that makes college reminiscing worthwhile. We did pub crawls (literally after the fifth pub some were crawling) we did parades, we sang terrible songs, we introduced the frosh to our uniquely brash and arrogant culture. During this week were led by a fictitious character we named super plumber. I have no idea where the name came from it was one of those things, a legend that emerged from graduating classes of decades gone by. Super plumber was always a senior who best personified the engineering spirit. He was voted upon by all the other seniors who led frosh week. It was a great and prestigious role that allowed the senior to play the ham, have a lot of fun, and drink a lot of free beer.
So at our organizing meeting I made my pitch. I donned a cape and acted mysterious. Sharing stories of greatness of our school, our program. I explained how I had helped organize the raid on a rival engineering school, made the lives of all the campus arts students very uncomfortable during homecoming, how I had organize the bathtub races, how I had led activities in our icy January beach party the year before (Brrrr I still get the chills to my bones when I think of that icy lake). As I walked through my accomplishments I was heckled by a few fellow seniors but overall I thought it went well. When it came to the vote I lost handily to a friend. I was devastated. Did I mention I hate losing? I have not forgotten that bitter taste of loss. I tried to soldier on and be a good loser but that is not my style. I hate losing. I did not handle it well, I sulked and became somewhat detached.
You Don’t Even Want to Work Here
Unfortunately this same engineering culture led to another early leadership failure. When I left college I went to work in the steel industry. My first job was in a training program where you worked in various departments seeking a place where you would ultimately fit and stay. In my first placement I worked in one of the toughest parts of the steel industry, the blast furnaces. It was a place where men dealt with life and death every day and it showed on their faces. They had seen much and did not suffer fools, or young engineers, well. Just like the name of the area suggests this was a place that could make or break you. In many ways it broke me. I tried my best to fit in but it was a struggle. I loved the guys working on the furnaces, but the staff, I could not figure them out. I did not fit in at all; I just could not get over my engineer attitude and connect with the other salaried folks. In my exit interview I was told that “you don’t even want to work here”. I was dumbfounded; I had said nothing of the sort. Sure, I was struggling with the shift pattern, with the work, with the salaried folks, but I had never said anything to anyone about not wanting to be there.
Feedback is the Breakfast of Champions
For the longest time I struggled with this placement. A negative performance review and a feeling of rejection, again. What an opportunity! I sulked and whined for some time; in fact my attitude adversely impacted my performance at my next placement. They did not want me either. Only thing was that I was slowly starting to process what was going on and accept the feedback I was given as my own. I learned that I came across as cocky and aloof. I appeared as a know it all, insensitive to others. I was in it for myself and did not care about the bodies I left in my wake. None of it was true to me, I cared deeply about those around me! I may have had no life experience in showing it, but I cared! This feedback cut deeply, it hurt. I resolved to change. I took it upon myself to befriend people who could tech me about the area I was weak. Ironically in 1989 I was laser focused on improving my emotional intelligence; of course Daniel Goleman and others had not yet coined that phrase. I connected with admin assistants and female colleagues, those I reasoned had this interpersonal stuff figured out. It was a slow process but I grew. Since I had sooooo far to go even growing quickly it took time to get decent at this.
By the time I left that organization twelve years later, I had made life long friends, been a part of awesome high performance teams, had a respected list of accomplishments that the teams I was apart of had won. Most importantly I had learned the basics of being a leader and finding purpose in leading. It was ironic that the reason I resigned was because of an interpersonal challenge that had become untenable. It was not performance, it was not the lure of more money, it was a poor manager who cared only about himself and how he was perceived by the organization. Irony irony…
I sit here 19 year later reflecting on emotional intelligence and purpose. My most recent opportunity offered in the largest sense because of my ability to connect with people, to have a clear sense of purpose and align a team to achieve it. Irony irony…
What is leadership development about?
Hard painful self assessing, self breaking work. It is anguish and uncertainty, suffering and second guessing, it is discomfort. Leadership development; is it worth it?
You bet your life it is.
For me there is no greater calling, no more fulfilling activity than to lead well. It warms my heart to see others grow and flourish in an environment of healthy leadership. I smile inwardly like a proud father when one of my team steps into the breach and leads. The thought that I had an influence on their life and leadership is a great altruistic treasure.
This is not for the feint of heart, it is for the courageous. It is for those willing to seek their purpose, their leadership mantle.
Thoughts on a Recent Read
The Dip by Seth Godin
This was the first of Mr. Godin’s books I have read and I must say it will not be the last. I enjoyed this book and found its message wise and on point for our age. The premise of the book is that there is a time to quit a role, project, effort and a time to stay. When we have the opportunity to be the very best and are willing to pay the price, it is time to stay. When it is clear that staying will result in mediocrity or worse yet (Mr. Godin’s term for a dead end) a cul-de-sac, it is time to move on to something where we can be our best. The dip is the place in between. The place where we face opposition, adversity and discouragement. It is here that many wrongly chose to give up when greatness is not that far away for the brave souls who persevere.
Compelling: Very much