I’m honored to be speaking on the topic of leadership at this Chic-fil-A Leadercast.
However, before I jump into this discussion, I must first address a personal caveat on the way we approach leadership. My views may be perceived as somewhat controversial. My personal concerns relate to how we elevate leadership over other skill sets, that we have a tendency to exalt our abilities and skills over those whom we lead, the followers. Perhaps the most integral character trait of successful leadership is humility – not perceiving ourselves as greater than, or more talented than those who have not been called or gifted as leaders. For those of us who are of the Christian faith, we need to recognize that Jesus called us to take up our cross daily, and follow Him, to be His followers. Nowhere did he discuss or extol leadership, and yet those that followed him paradoxically became strong leaders.
I’m reminded of Joseph in the Old Testament who, as a young man, shared his aspirations of leadership with his brothers; how they, like the sheaves of wheat and stars of the sky, would bow down to worship him. Because of his hubris and immaturity, he was thrown into the well by his brothers and ended up as a slave in Egypt. After he went through the annealing process of being a slave and a prisoner, he was then promoted into the second highest position in the land of Egypt. But he only reached this position after he had learned the lesson of humility and placing the needs of those whom he led over his personal needs.
Those of us that carry the mantle of leadership must be cautioned to use our skills in ways where those we work with are empowered and exalted, not to bring glory and recognition to ourselves.
As an exercise, I would challenge you to read through the 31 chapters of the book of Proverbs and count the number of times Solomon addresses pride and humility, with pride leading to disgrace, while humility leads to honor and wisdom. It will surprise you.
So much for my preamble.
I would like to address initially what I feel is the best way to acquire leadership, after which I will speak about the qualities that I find are inherent in strong, productive, effective leadership.
To flesh out the first part of my talk – how does one acquire leadership skills? There are a number of ways, and I will elaborate on those, and conclude with what I feel is the best way to become a leader.
1. Obviously one of the ways is to attend seminars such as the one that we are attending today where we garner from other leaders what they feel constitutes leadership. These seminars are invigorating, informative and full of useful information. They are somewhat akin to attending a John Wesley revival meeting. We get jacked up, we are challenged, we feel omnipotent, and ready to take on whatever challenges life will throw at us.
Studying leadership is a beneficial and lifelong exercise. These seminars have their merit. Being emotionally charged has its merits, regardless of how fleeting.
2. A second way to learn about leadership is to study the lives of leaders. I am a strong proponent on reading biographies of great men and women, especially those who have preceded us. I prefer to study leadership from an historical perspective so that you have the entire body of work to learn from. Leadership, to be truly effective, must have a lasting effect, and it must end well. Failure is an important part of developing leadership, but if the summary of one’s experiences is best summarized as one that has failed, I would conclude that we can learn from them how NOT to be a leader, which is also important, but I would rather learn from one who’s overall legacy is one of having accomplished something significant, one that has a positive lasting effect on our world.
In studying the lives of leaders, my personal preference is to go to the original source. By that I mean read about great men and women and what they have accomplished verses reading commentaries by others who write about leadership using great leaders as examples.
Having said that, I must admit that I’ve read a book or two on leadership in my time, some of which have had a lasting effect on me. Perhaps the one that stands out as one of the most impactful is Good to Great by Jim Collins. It has been years since I read that book, but I still strongly recall how Mr. Collins challenged me with the five levels of leadership, and the legacy that one leaves in his or her wake. And of course there are others.
My wife, LeAnna, and I are in the process of downsizing, and in doing so I chose to donate my entire library to MCC Connections in Kidron. They dutifully post everything up on e-bay and do very well in reselling used books. As I was sorting and packing up these hundreds of books, it wasn’t the scores of books on leadership that had left a lasting impact on me – it was the biographies and autobiographies of great men and women that had seared into my conscious and subconscious mind what it is that constitutes a leader, biographies on giants such as Abraham Lincoln, Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant, Winston Churchill, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, Steve Jobs, Teddy Roosevelt, Henry Ford, and the robber barons Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller. My mother taught me never to say anything unkind about anyone, so I will not mention who some of you may perceive as great leaders but that I don’t, whose lives I’ve also studied, primarily to learn, in my opinion, how NOT to lead, leaders that I would describe as peacocks who strut and crow about their accomplishments.
The Book of Proverbs is one of the best books I’ve read on business leadership, and the Bible itself is replete with the examples of great and fallen leaders. Much can be learned on leadership by studying the Scriptures.
3. The third, and in my opinion, the most effective way to develop leadership, is to be one. You can study about leadership all your life and never become one. You may become an authority on leadership, teach classes on leadership, be a consultant on leadership, but being an authority on leadership does not make you a leader.
When I need technical help on my computers, I don’t allow the technician to touch my mouse or keyboard. They have to show me what I must to. Only by doing it myself am I capable of learning. The same applies to leadership.
Leadership is analogous to driving a car to a complicated place that you’ve never driven to before. Chances are, if you drive there yourself without using your Garmin, you’ll be familiar enough with the landmarks that you’ll be able to navigate your way home. If you are a passenger in the car, however, you know that it is virtually impossible to figure out your way back. Leaders are not passengers; they are drivers.
On a related subject, if you want strong leaders to develop in your organization, you’ve got to leave some oxygen in the room for them to breath. As I approached sixty years of age, succession planning became an overriding concern. It became apparent to me that if I wanted my son and son-in-law to take over the business, I would have to get out of the way in order for them to do so. If the big oak in the middle of the forest has filled up the canopy with its branches, it blocks out the sunlight to the saplings. If you want the little oaks to grow, you have to chop down the big oak. I’ve never seen two leaders develop as rapidly as the co-presidents of our company who now eagerly press forward every day without waiting for my approval or consent.
To reiterate, if you want to be a leader, you have to position yourself where leading is your only option. And there is no perfect time, place, or opportunity to do so. You simply have to take the plunge, whether it is in business, in the service industry, in the home, in the church, in the community. I recall the day I came home from work in 1976 when I was building silos for Mast-Leply and calmly informed my wife I was going into business for myself. We had a one year old daughter at the time, drove a 14 year old car, had no savings, had just completed a three years missions assignment in New York City, but I had this burning desire to make it on my own. That’s a story for another time and another place. My batting average initially was probably well below .200 but it went up as time went on. I learned what it took to be a leader by being one.
Those are my suggestions on how to become a leader. I would like to take the rest of my allotted time to iterate for you what I feel constitute the seventeen character traits of a leader, in no particular order.
1. To be a leader, you must be audacious, you must be fearless, and that’s one of the reasons not everyone is a leader. It is much more comfortable to not stick your neck out, to not take risks, to not attempt the impossible. It is much easier to listen to the critics that tell you why it can’t be done, to the naysayers that tell you you’re foolish, you’re impulsive, you’re irrational. Being audacious requires that you develop a strong sense of self awareness, knowing your strengths and weaknesses, and then maximizing the opportunities as they are presented to you. To this day, I still have people question decisions that I make, and roll their eyes when I tell them about my next ambitious plan. This is a fact of life leaders have to live with. But it is the non-leaders that doubt you. Other leaders understand, and support you.
2. To be a leader, you must be nimble. Nimble means to be light on your feet, being able to move fast, anticipate the future, be constantly on the move, and pushing, or falling, if you will, forward. Without alacrity you will drop the ball at the most inopportune time. I recall exhibiting at the house wares show in Chicago years ago when a chain store buyer expressed some interest in a particular product, and rather than respond with an immediate, clear, and cogent response, I stumbled around, intimidated by the purchasing power of the buyer. An older, wiser man by the name of Bill Schwarz, was with me at the time, listening to and watching my response. When the buyer left he turned to me and said, “Peter, you just dropped the ball.” He was right, and his comments stung. It reminds me of the verse in Scriptures that exhorts us to “be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you the reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear.”
3. To be a leader, you must be opportunistic. A leader looks for that crack in the wall, puts his shoulder against it, and barges through. Those that are not leaders see the same crack, and will mention to their friend – “Look at that crack in the wall, that opportunity.” They see the same crack you do, but do nothing about it. As I mentioned earlier, opportunities are all around you. If you wait for the perfect time, the perfect idea, the perfect financing, the perfect place, you’ll never break through. For an example, just look around you at the number of woodworking enterprises in Wayne and Holmes County alone. There are well over 300 businesses, many of which are working out of a shed or barn, and yet Holmes County is becoming, or has become, the domestic source for the best hardwood furniture in America.
4. To be a leader you must be a visionary. I quote Wayne Gretzky, the greatest hockey player of all time and nine time Most Valuable Player who was quoted as saying, “I do not skate to where the puck is; I skate to where the puck is going to be.” A leader must have the ability to dream the dream, to visualize what he or she is hoping to accomplish, and then skate to where the puck is going to be, recognizing that in the process, there will be a number of opposing hockey players doing everything they can to hip-check you over the boards.
5. To be a leader, you must be passionate. If you are not completely committed to the goals and objectives of your organization, no one else will be either. Do what you love, and love what you do.
6. To be a leader, it is essential that you empower the people within your organization. Delegating significant responsibilities to your people will show you trust them. They in turn will develop trust in you. Loyalty is a two way street. Empowering your people is your way of developing leaders within your organization. Empowering is the opposite of micromanaging; it is the ultimate way of showing respect. You don’t, nor should you, carry the load all by yourself.
7. Leadership requires surrounding yourself with people that are better than you, which in some cases such as mine, is not that difficult to do. A smart leader hires smarter people.
8. Leadership does not require that you have a formal education or advanced degrees. I’ve met and worked with people that have a doctorate degree who have difficulty fighting their way out of a paper bag. Having common sense and being highly educated have little to do with each other. Do not confuse the ability to learn with being educated. It is essential that leaders are always learning, but not necessarily in a classroom. The school of hard knocks is a good way to learn, saves on tuition fees, but is not without limitations of its own.
9. Leaders must not be afraid to take calculated risks. Fear of failure holds many back from being more accomplished and attaining higher goals. It was Michael Jordan, the famous basketball player, who once said “I never missed a shot I didn’t take.” So many of us are too concerned about embarrassing ourselves by missing shots, rather than concentrating on the returns on the shots we do make.
10. Which leads me to my next character trait – a leader must be resilient. When one goes 1 for 10, it is hard to bounce back, but the ability to take a blow and to keep on ticking is essential for those in leadership. It’s easy to feel sorry for yourself, to stick your tail between your legs and shuffle off into the sunset. This is not an option for leaders. That is one of the reasons that I love Paul Pierce, a basketball player for the Boston Celtics. He can go zero for twenty, have an awful game, and yet when they need a clutch shot at the end of the game to win it, everyone knows it is Paul Pierce who will step up, take that shot, and make it.
11. Leaders must have the fortitude to terminate relationships that are no longer working. Yes, it is true if you hire carefully you will fire rarely, but it is inevitable that more than once in your career you are going to have to make the tough call and move a person out.
12. Leaders do not have to be dynamic, and in fact, it may be a liability. You can also be an introvert and still lead effectively. I am thinking of two men I know well in Holmes County, one of whom runs a leather business, and the other a lumber yard. Both have enjoyed significant success in their careers. I have deep admiration for both. The former happens to be sanguine, emotional, outgoing, and gregarious. The later is a choleric, almost shy, and does not mingle with his employees. Yet they are both highly respected and admired. The point being, don’t concern yourself with whether or not you are shy or outgoing. Neither one is a criteria for successful leadership. The following is a quotation from Michael Hyatt, a blogger and author who has been involved with Chic-fil-A leadership seminars for years. “I have seen leaders get prideful, greedy, and demanding. Sadly, it has increasingly become the norm in a world that values charisma above character. To paraphrase Jim Collins from Good to Great, you can build an enduring organization with charisma, but it is more difficult.”
13. Leadership requires sacrifice, not of your integrity, but of your time, and initially, of your income. Your check will always be the last one to be cut, and there may be times where there isn’t enough cash in the checking account to cover your expenses. I have a close friend who has been operating her own business for 7 years and is still only paying herself $8.50 an hour, but she is happy as a pig in mud, is an astute business person, and is visionary enough to see that there is a future for her business.
14. Leadership requires that you maintain a healthy balance in your personal life. To be consumed by your ambitious goals, to be consumed by keeping up or staying ahead of the competition, to be consumed with increasing your personal wealth at the expense of your family, of your faith, and of your community, comes with a price. Solomon once said “He made me the keeper of vineyards but my own vineyard I have not kept.” May this never be said of any of us.
15. Leaders are directly responsible for the culture of their organization. If you want to see an extension of yourself, look at the facilities and the people you surround yourself with. Do you allow graffiti in your facilities? Do you tolerate messy shop floors and dirty bathrooms? Are off-color jokes and crass language permissible? Is there continuous bickering among your staff? If you find any of this undesirable and wish it were eliminated, I would suggest you take a close look at yourself.
16. A leader does not need excessive amounts of cash to start a business. I will go a step further by saying having access to excessive startup capital is a liability. A business needs to grow itself from its own earnings. A business that is built on excessive cash will rely too much on the cash it has too burn through and not concentrate enough on the earnings that it must generate to stay in business. Start small. Be profitable. Plow the profits back into the business. Do not rely on OPM (Other People’s Money) or bank loans to start your business.
17. The primary requisite for a leader is integrity. Your word must be your bond. Your customers, your suppliers, your employees all must trust you, and have confidence in you. Remove any one of those three legs and your chair will tip over. Under promise and over deliver.
So be a leader. Open that local beauty salon. Start that dry kiln. Start teaching a Sunday school class. Join the choir. Run for a member of the school board, for city council, or state representative. Go to law school, become a dentist if this is what you want. Start washing dishing in a local restaurant, and if you go about it the right way, someday you may end up owning it. Start laying down the paving bricks, one brick at a time. In the process you will be building up that risk muscle, which in its infancy could barely lift a match stick, but after years of practice, excellence, and due diligence you are able to lift an oak log.
The only one stopping you is yourself. Stay humble, and through being a good follower become a strong leader!