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Leaders are Works-in-Progress


I got one of my earliest lessons in leadership in college. A nerdy engineering student, I was a floor counsellor in a Georgia Tech dorm with the good fortune to have a visionary and unusual boss.

Templeton was the associate dean of students, a bona fide adult in a role usually held by students. But his age and experience weren’t the only things that set him apart. Miller did things differently from the other head residents.

In advance of our Monday night staff meetings, he assigned readings, typically classic leadership texts such as Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, books on assertiveness training, that kind of thing. Now, keep in mind that this was the late 1980s, decades before the leadership industry exploded.

Tim, a good friend of mine, was another of Miller’s counsellors. Tim was what you might call a natural leader. Super people-oriented, energetic, just downright magnetic, he was the guy everybody wanted to know, who we all aspired to be like.

I later realized that the Tims of the world, they’re the exception. And yet, we can learn how to connect with others. Just as Miller invested in us, teaching us how to lead the kids on our floors and each other. He made us better, both individually and as a team.

Leadership can be taught.

And yet, so often in my decades working as a consultant or inside some of the world’s biggest brands, I’ve met dozens of leaders at all levels, from middle management right up to the c-suite, who think leaders are like Tim: born, not made.

This is a dangerously limiting belief.

Leadership is a set of skills you can learn. As with learning chess, say, or French cooking, your education, your quest for improvement, never ends. Leaders have to create environments that emphasize learning as a key principle AND apply that to themselves. Being in a leadership role is not a finished state. In fact, you’re never done growing and advancing. You’ve never “made it,” in this sense.

But there’s another, even riskier myth: conflating leadership roles with true leadership.

Your title doesn’t make you a leader.

In the early 2000s, I was working on a consulting project in the maintenance department of an aerospace manufacturing company. The division was notoriously slow, and it was easy to see why: there were seven levels of management for 1,200 people.

A restructuring was in order. The rub? A lot of managers would have to return to their former jobs carrying tools. I wasn’t surprised when, a month later, our team got a call from the client saying there had been grumblings about the process. What did surprise me? The company wanted us to interview those who’d been affected.

I’ll never forget my first interview. Virgil was in his late 50s. He’d lost his supervisor role and been sent back to the floor. I was barely 30 and nervous. I had no idea how it was going to go, but I anticipated badly. I didn't know how to start, so I opened with something simple.

“Hey, what's going on for you?” I asked.

“It’s my fault,’’ Virgil said.

That was not what I’d expected. “What’s your fault?”

“Well, it's my fault that I didn’t get to keep my role as a supervisor.”

Virgil told me that all his career, he’d aspired to be a supervisor. But when he finally landed the role, he did nothing to prepare for it. He didn’t know how to empower people. He took no opportunity to develop himself. Now, here he was, on the runway to retirement, back in his old job. He’d squandered his chance, and he knew it. And at his age, he wasn’t going to get another one.

“I am who I am” doesn't cut it.

I meet a lot of managers like Virgil. Some identify that they’ve got stuff to work on but avoid the effort and discomfort of growth. Others shrug and go: “This is me” or “This is just how I am.” They have no intention of changing.

And then there are the people who think that when they become a leader, they've hit the pinnacle, they're done. “I have now achieved what I wanted to achieve” or “I've made it.” Done.

Leadership is not a title or a fixed state. It’s a process of becoming someone who can align people around a cause to deliver results. A leader defines the gap between where you are and where you need to be and engages people in the journey to close it. Leaders know they are works-in-progress who never stop learning and growing. They know that the art of leadership is a life-long pursuit.

I think of a coaching client of mine who, when he was named CEO, knew that public speaking and media interviews would be significant parts of the role. So he got to work, spending untold hours and days getting ready to face employees, shareholders, and reporters.

Some might say there's no way someone at that level has time to make that kind of investment. Or, why not just offload this part to an underling? Not him. He knew this was a critical skill for the role. He knew he had to master it to deliver the best possible outcomes for the company. He knew that even as a leader, he would have to challenge himself constantly, and he embraced it.

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