Blake Brown is a recent college graduate starting his first job and discovering what it means to be a leader. While Blake is unsure how to become a leader at 22 with so little experience, he uses his late father’s words of wisdom, “You can be a leader,” as motivation. Blake wonders what it really means to be a leader, and how to go about becoming one. He turns to his mentor, Debbie, who points out that his definition of “leader” is too narrow.
Debbie explains that leaders are not just the people in charge, but rather people who influence the thinking, beliefs, or development of others. Leadership does not always accompany a job title. For example, when most people are asked who has had the greatest impact on their lives, they will not point to a supervisor or a boss. Instead, they will point to a grandparent, a parent, a sibling, or a friend.
There are two critical qualities that all great leaders must have:
1. The desire to serve. Great leaders want to serve others, and they genuinely see their role as servant coming before their own self-interests. Those who do not want to serve will never be great leaders.
2. The willingness to grow. Poor leaders think they already have all the answers, and they continue to work and lead the way they always have. Great leaders never think they are done growing, changing, or learning. They know that as the world changes, they must change along with it.
Individuals must grow as leaders before they can assume formal leadership roles. Debbie explains to Blake that the greatest leaders throughout history were prepared and ready to take on leadership roles when the opportunity arose, and it is never too early for him to start growing as a leader.
LEARNING TO SERVE
Great leaders live to serve others more than themselves. However, by focusing on serving their employees and their organizations, these leaders do help themselves in the end. A leader’s motivation and reasoning is critical; those motivated primarily by self-interests will not succeed.
As Blake begins to learn more about the qualities of great leaders, Debbie stresses the idea that all great leaders are servant leaders. Blake finds the term “servant leader” hard to reconcile with his image of a leader. To him, a servant leader sounds like someone who tries to please everyone without really making decisions or leading. Debbie clarifies the role of a servant leader by explaining the two critical aspects of leadership:
1. Vision/Direction: What is the end goal? Great leaders establish the vision/direction, and then ensure that their employees understand and can clearly see it. Employees need to be focused on the overall mission, or what the organization is trying to accomplish.
2. Implementation: How will the team reach the end goal? Great leaders serve others so they can reach their final goal. These leaders know that the key to making the organization’s vision a reality is to ensure their employees have the necessary tools and skills for the journey.
Unfortunately, Debbie points out that it is uncommon to see leaders who embody these two servant leadership qualities. Blake wonders why there are so few servant leaders, and why so many leaders become corrupt and fail their employees and organizations. Debbie explains that there are two primary reasons:
1. Ego. Those in leadership positions often fall prey to an overabundance of confidence and pride.
2. Fear. Leaders often have a fear of losing control.
Ego and fear combined make it very difficult for leaders to see beyond their own interests and focus on serving others. A lack of education about this kind of leadership and of positive servant-leader role models are also responsible for the shortage of servant leaders.
Ultimately, Debbie tells Blake that being a servant leader is a choice. Leaders must choose to behave this way, and then choose to be dedicated to this path. This is where the growing aspect of leadership comes into play.
Just as in life, those who are not growing within the business world are dying. Leaders who do not grow will stagnate and their businesses will as well. Stagnated leaders apply yesterday’s solutions to today’s problems; they are not ready to face new challenges or opportunities. Instead of adapting to a changing landscape, they continue to operate the way they always have.
GROW is an acronym that leaders can use to remember the essential and different ways they must continue to grow. The acronym also helps apply the authors’ ideas about leadership growth to day-to-day life and work:
* Gaining knowledge.
* Reaching out to others.
* Opening their world.
* Walking toward wisdom.
The first growth area is gaining knowledge. Leaders gain knowledge by becoming students, particularly in four critical areas:
1. Self-knowledge. Leading well starts with self-awareness. Great leaders are acutely aware of their strengths and weaknesses, their passions, their leadership styles, and their personality types. They also realize how these aspects of their personalities affect their lives and work.
2. Others. Leading well means understanding the team well. Great leaders serve, and serving is not possible without in-depth knowledge of those being served. Who are they? What are their interests, their hopes and dreams, and their passions? What are their fears and their career aspirations? How do they want to be rewarded for a job well done?
3. Industry. Knowledge of the industry is also critical. Where is it going, and where has it been? Who are the major competitors?
4. Field of leadership. Great leaders need to gain knowledge about the field of leadership. What is the latest thinking? What is the latest research? What are other great leaders doing? What lessons can be learned from those who have failed? What new skills are needed?
Gaining knowledge in the above four areas is essential to becoming and remaining a great leader. It is not hard to gain this knowledge; it is simply a matter of making a commitment to and focusing on knowledge accumulation. Debbie uses a skiing analogy to explain the importance of leaders gaining knowledge to Blake. In a slalom competition, if a skier misses the first gate, he or she is disqualified and the race is over. Gaining knowledge is a leader’s “first gate.” Leaders need to get through this gate to successfully continue on course.
Debbie expands her skiing analogy to illustrate impediments to leaders gaining knowledge:
* Too much speed. Slalom skiers miss gates when they are going too fast, either because they are pressing too hard or they do not know their limitations. Likewise, many leaders lose focus when trying to do too much, too fast.
* Lack of preparation. Skiers miss gates when they have not studied the course well enough. Similarly, many leaders are unwilling to take the time to prepare, or, in other words, take the time to grow.
* Distraction. Distractions come in many forms, both external and internal. Skiers and leaders cannot afford distractions.
Finally, great leaders do not simply gain knowledge and move on. Gaining knowledge is an ongoing, never-ending process for them. It is a part of their leadership strategies, their jobs, and their lives. As Blake navigates his first job out of college, he attempts to gain lasting experience in all four critical knowledge areas:
1. Self-knowledge. Blake decides to pursue self-knowledge through an assessment offered by his new company’s human resources department. He finds this tool to be an excellent way to learn more about his personality and preferences. With this new knowledge, he finds it easier to utilize his strengths and work with others.
2. Others. Being new to the company, Blake is unsure about gaining knowledge of others. There are not any “others” he will be leading; he is not even in a leadership position. Debbie explains that to grow into a leadership position, he must know the people on his team extremely well. He does this by having lunch with a team member as often as possible, striving to learn the stories of those he works with, and asking colleagues to help him understand the personalities of others.
3. Industry. Learning about his industry is perhaps the easiest step for Blake. As the “new guy,” he is in an ideal position to ask a lot of questions. Early on, he asks a colleague how he can learn more about both the industry and the competition.
4. Leadership. Finally, to grow his leadership skills, Blake watches DVDs of his father’s speeches and presentations on leadership. While Blake feels guilty about choosing to watch DVDs instead of reading about leadership, Debbie explains that reading is not the only way to learn about leadership. She tells Blake that not every leader is a reader, but every leader is a learner.
After starting his new job, Blake quickly learns first-hand that leaders who do not gain knowledge will fail to grow. His new company is losing important customers, and no one is sure why. Blake realizes that part of growing as a leader is keeping up with changes in the industry and changes in customers’ wants and needs. The leaders at his company have failed to do both, and he can see the results of this lack of growth.
REACHING OUT TO OTHERS
As leaders work to grow their leadership skills, they must remember that it will not always be easy. Bumps in the road are inevitable, but they are also critical for growth. Faced with obstacles, leaders must develop new skills and new ways of thinking, which both lead to growth.
The second growth area, reaching out to others, proves that an important part of personal growth is helping others to grow. One of the best ways to really learn something is to teach it to someone else. This can be either formal, in a classroom or mentoring setting, or through informal, day-to-day teachable moments. It is not just about imparting information to someone else; it is also about encouraging others to learn and grow by asking them questions and probing them to think. Great leaders must share information and ask probing questions as part of their teaching.
Blake initially balks at the suggestion to reach out to others in his new job. How can someone who has been on the job for just a few weeks teach anyone anything? Debbie encourages him to ask questions; by asking questions, he will force others to clarify their thoughts and learn new things. By asking his teammates questions about how the organization operates and solves problems, he will force them to see situations in a new light and more clearly. For example, when Blake is on a cross-functional team tasked with discovering why so many clients are defecting to competitors, one of his jobs is to interview current and former clients, as well as executives within the organization. Blake starts by asking exactly what questions his team wants answered in the interviews, and who will be the audience for the presentation of this information. By asking these questions, he forces them to clarify their thinking about the team’s mission and the kind of information they need from their interviews.
OPENING YOUR WORLD
The third way leaders can grow is by opening their worlds–both at work and outside of it. Leaders excel when they branch out and seek to gain new life and leadership experiences. Therefore, good leaders are always looking for new experiences that will help them become better leaders. There are various ways leaders can open their worlds at work:
* Spending time working at a client’s facility.
* Listening to customer calls.
* Joining a cross-functional team.
* Talking to recent retirees.
* Meeting with leaders from other departments.
Leaders can also open their worlds outside work by:
* Taking up a new hobby.
* Reading a wide variety of books.
* Experiencing the arts through museums and plays.
Blake opens his world by teaching English as a second language in his spare time. Leaders grow as they help others grow, as well as through cross-cultural experiences. Blake’s tutoring experience will allow him to grow in both areas.
WALKING TOWARD WISDOM
Finally, leaders grow by walking toward wisdom. Wisdom is different from knowledge; it is the application of knowledge, discernment, insight, experience, and judgment to make good decisions when the answer is not obvious. This is not something that happens automatically; instead, it is something that leaders must work toward. Leaders can pursue wisdom four different ways:
1. Self-evaluation. Good leaders strive to see themselves clearly and tell themselves the truth. They need to clearly understand and acknowledge their strengths and weaknesses, what they are doing well, and where they are struggling. This is one of the hardest things for leaders to do, especially those in higher leadership positions. There are two things that most often get in the way of honest self-evaluation:
* Ego: It is very easy for leaders of highly successful organizations to let their egos get the best of them. Many times, they give themselves too much credit (or all the credit) for the success of their organizations. It is nearly impossible to get an honest self-evaluation when an overabundance of pride and ego get in the way.
* Isolation: It is also very easy for leaders to be removed from the day-to-day operations of their organizations. With this isolation comes a warped view of reality, especially regarding the truth about themselves.
2. Feedback. Self-evaluation must go hand-in-hand with feedback. Good leaders pursuing wisdom cannot shy away from honest feedback. If feedback is not built into the operations of the organization, leaders must seek it out. They must ask those above and below them in the organization what they are doing well and where they are falling short.
3. Counsel from others. Along with feedback, good leaders must seek counsel from others, acknowledge that they do not know everything, and learn from the knowledge and experiences of others. Instead of always learning by trial and error, they can often learn from the paths that others have already cleared. The key to getting this type of counsel is learning to ask good questions. For example, “What are the major lessons you have learned so far in your career?” “What do you know now that you wish you knew 10, 20, or 30 years ago?”
4. Time. Good leaders know that wisdom takes time. It is not a one-time endeavor, but a lifelong pursuit. Good leaders do not rush to accumulate wisdom, and they do not ever stop accumulating it.
Blake realizes he has an advantage being a new employee when it comes to gaining wisdom. Because he is new, he can comfortably ask people for feedback about what he should be doing, and what he should stop doing. He also sees the pursuit of wisdom first-hand in the president of his new company. When Blake suggests that the company’s current woes most likely stem from leadership’s lack of growth and adaptation to meet the demands of a changing industry, the president actually thanks him for telling the truth. The president goes on to admit that he failed to engender a culture of growth in his organization. Blake recognizes the value of the pursuit of wisdom as the president acknowledges the truth of the situation, his role in it, and his determination to make it right.
Through this interaction with the president, Blake realizes that it is not enough for leaders to focus on their own growth; they also need to focus on nurturing a culture of growth within their organizations. Organizations as a whole, as well as their leaders, must continuously grow to survive.