Creativity expert Josh Linkner (joshlinkner.com) tells a story about an experiment with a pike. The pike was placed in a large tank with smaller fish. The pike, being a predator, ate the smaller fish. Researchers then put a glass divider in the tank and put more small fish on one side and the pike on the other. As you might imagine, the pike once again went after the smaller fish but this time he smashed into the glass divider. So he tried again and again.
Eventually the pike learned he wasn’t going to get to the smaller fish, so he stopped trying. The problem was that he started to starve. The researchers then took the glass divider away and gave the pike access to the smaller fish. What happened next is remarkable. The pike did nothing. Starving and faced with breakfast, lunch, and dinner right in front of him, the pike just sat there. His means of survival swam around him, even coming up to his mouth, and yet he never tried to eat it. Eventually he died of starvation.
Josh tells this story as a cautionary tale to encourage his audience not to be stopped by invisible barriers. I think this is a wonderful lesson to keep in mind when we think of ourselves as leaders. It’s not uncommon for me to hear people say they can’t lead because they believe “I’m not a leader,” “Leadership is someone else’s job,” or “No one made me the leader so no one will listen to me.”
People who believe they are not leaders or must be appointed into a leadership position are no different from that pike. They are letting invisible barriers control their lives. The reality is that real leaders are not necessarily people who are given the title. True deep leadership comes from within and is a belief in oneself that no one can destroy. It’s a combination of skill, self-knowledge, and the ability to understand and “be with” all people.
I teach a class on leadership and when I ask the people in the class to describe the attributes of a leader they admire, they always, without fail, come up with the same descriptors, among them:
- Honest and also trustworthy
- Good listener
- Is able to give feedback to others
- A good mentor
- Willing to follow others
- Gives credit where credit is due
- Knows how to get things done
What strikes me about this exercise is that when people reflect upon admired leaders, the characteristics that stand out for them are personality traits. They will mention technical skills, but almost as an after thought. What they truly notice, however, are a few key traits that raise them up from the crowd.
A perfect example is Karen, a colleague from the University of Michigan, who recently became very ill and eventually died. During Karen’s illness, her friends and colleagues created a group email and began sending her messages intended to assist her in her recovery. When the emails were sent, everyone on the email list was copied. When I read them I was overwhelmed.
The stories people told of Karen were remarkable, not only for the breadth and depth of her influence, but for the sheer volume and unselfishness of what she did for others. Most astonishing of all is that she impacted not only hundreds of lives, but the very fabric of the University of Michigan, all without ever having the formal title of leader.
I can’t imagine Karen ever acting like the pike. There were no barriers, real or imagined, that she wouldn’t face. In the vast majority of instances, she got what she wanted. She did it by masterful use of what I call the “hidden” skills of leadership:
- Being authentic
- Knowing your passion
- Knowing when to say no and when to say yes
- Knowing how to network
- Being aware of your environment
The website Business Ethics says a person who is authentic possesses the following characteristics: 1
- Listen to connect
- Real rather than having to be right
- Inspire and bring people together
- Live their values
Being authentic is crucial to good leadership because people can tell when others aren’t “real” and they shy away from them. In her book, Take the Lead, Betsy Myers says, “When we know who we are, others can sense that about us, and are far more likely to trust our leadership.”
Authentic people know who they are. They are aware of their strengths and weaknesses. They identify their strengths so they can maximize their benefit and they find ways to limit the impact of their weaknesses. They don’t lie to others and equally important, they don’t lie to themselves.
When a person listens to themselves and truly knows who they are, they become aware of what is important to them. They find their passion. A leader is passionate about something… politics, equality, art, music, children, the elderly, racing, sports… there are as many passions as there are people.
Karen’s passion was advancing the careers of women who worked at the university. Wherever there was an opportunity to assist women in their professional advancement, Karen was there. The benefit of working from passion is that a person speaking from the heart is difficult to ignore. I believe one reason Karen was able to accomplish so much was because people knew she so believed in what she was doing that she wasn’t going to go away. They had to listen because she was so compelling.
A good leader knows how to say no and when to say yes. Time management isn’t about adding an infinite amount of tasks to a finite amount of time but in deciding how to spend your time. Time management becomes much easier if you are working from your passion.
For those of us who have a difficult time saying no, it gives us a reason to refuse others. “No, I can’t right now, I have to work on (my passion).” “I may not be the best person to ask. My expertise is around (my passion).” “I might be able to assist you with X, but that is all. I’m really trying to limit my involvement in other projects besides (my passion).”
Setting boundaries like this not only helps you, but other people too. No one wants their time wasted or to have someone promise something they can’t deliver. If I know you are good in X but not Y, at some point I’m going to learn that I might as well not even talk to you if I want Y.
On the other hand, great leaders are also known for being great mentors and advisors. Thus, there are times when I believe you should never say no. I never say no to a person who wants to go out to lunch or coffee to “pick my brain.” I don’t see that as a waste of time, no matter who the person is. At the very least you may spend some time with a very interesting person. In the best of all worlds, you will find another wonderful friend or colleague.
When someone asks for help, if you can help them with a little expenditure of time and effort, do it. What you’re doing is developing a network of diverse people. Perhaps in the future some of them will be able to assist you with something. But even if they never do, having yourself known as a person who is willing to talk and share your expertise, or link other people, adds to your credibility as a leader.
Networking sometimes has a bad connotation because people see it as using others but a network is no more than a group of people whom you know. The more people you know, the more you know. If you truly listen to others, you will hear their stories, and learn their experiences. As a leader you will gain the reputation of someone who truly understands others and cares about them.
People will look to you because of your connections. As a leader having these connections is critical because otherwise you become insular. Think about our national political campaigns. One of the most damaging accusations one candidate can make of another is that he or she is “out of touch” with the country. Being out of touch with what is going on with people and what is happening around him or her has been the downfall of many so-called leaders.
When I think of my friend Karen, she was a genius at being able to figure out what the next big issue was going to be. An excellent leader is always scanning the environment so that he or she knows what’s happening. They talk to their connections. They see what others outside of their field of expertise are saying and doing. Although intently focused upon their passion, they are broadly aware of their environment.
For example, let’s say you have parents who are going to need assisted living in a few years. You find out the costs are outrageous. Your passion becomes finding excellent, enriching, and affordable living for them. Now, you can serve just your parents. There is nothing wrong with that.
However, you could also scan the environment and realize there will be vast numbers of people needing similar care in the next ten years. You could talk to your associates and friends and find many people are struggling with the same issue. You might realize that with the high jobless rate, there are probably far more people in the state who need the same thing than you know about. Suddenly what started out as a search to assist your parents becomes a movement and you are at its head.
Leadership isn’t a mysterious thing. In reality we are all potential leaders, no matter who we are or where we sit. The wonderful fact about leadership is that no matter how many leaders we have, we can always use more. The decision is up to you. Are you Karen, or the pike?
- Jeff DeGraff: Innovation You
- Debra Fine: The Fine Art of Small Talk
- Josh Linkner: Disciplined Dreaming
- Betsy Myers: Take the Lead
- Dan Mulhers: Everyday Leadership
- Kathleen Reardon: It’s All Politics