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?”