Real Leaders

Becoming Great is Simple, Just Not Easy

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(Note to readers: the response to my recent blog, Three Reasons Why We Need Women Leaders Now has been nothing less than astonishing. What’s clear to me is that there is a deep thirst for practical leadership advice for women who want to excel as leaders, as well as a business need to elevate more women to senior leadership positions. So, I’ve decided to add a special note to women leaders whenever my blog deals with a subject that has a unique application for women. This blog does. The note is at the end.)

Good to Great, that leadership book with the red dust jacket, sits on the shelf of virtually every leader I’ve ever coached. The reason is simple, it’s a great book. For instance the hedgehog principle in which author Jim Collins (above) encourages people and companies to focus on things they do well that they are passionate about and can make money on is wisdom in its profound form.

Yet there is one big idea in the book that has caused lots of confusion.

It’s called Level Five Leadership. Collins tells us that the most successful leaders lead with paradoxical combination of iron-willed commitment and personal humility. What’s confusing about this is that many of the leaders we most admire don’t seem to have much humility. Nobody would accuse Steve Jobs or Winston Churchill of being humble yet both are widely admired as truly great, world changing leaders. And the list of not very humble leaders seems endless. Amazon hotshot Jeff Bezos and look-at-me Richard Branson are just two more that come to mind. So what’s up?

Did Collins simply get it wrong?

Well maybe not… In my 35 years of coaching leaders, some great and some not so great, I come to appreciate what Collins was getting at. I think we can all see that an unwavering commitment to build a special organization is essential to truly great leadership.

The nature of people working together generates chaos driven by the three-ring circus of human weaknesses.

Rampant nuttiness ranging from jealousy and revenge to arrogance and intimidation constantly tear at the fabric of any organization. Leaders who understand the value of a unified, agile team of people working to fulfill an inspiring vision need to expend oceans of energy to drown the demons of social chaos. That takes infinite commitment. I think that is easy to understand… but humility? What about humility? What I’ve come to understand about leadership humility is that it is not the ‘Aw shucks I’m nobody special’ kind.

Rather, it’s the humility of being keenly aware of the limits of your own knowledge and the fallibility of your own judgment.

It is open-mindedness. Of course nearly everyone claims to be open-minded. Who walks around beating their chest about their prejudices and unwillingness to entertain any newfangled ideas or different points of view? Yet those are the most common human behaviors of all. And unless we really work at it our inner voice is saying “I know I’m right, we disagree, therefore you must be wrong.”  Yes, we may act as if were open to new ideas and different points of view but our brains are wired for certainty not open-mindedness.

Much of the time our ‘humility’ is just an act. 

That’s why so many people are attracted to start up enterprises. Entrepreneurs frequently walk a tight rope were one false step can plunge the company into a crash dive. In those circumstances successful leaders are hungry learners. The best of them are passionately open-minded and constantly seeking the next best step necessary to create momentum and sustainable success.

And it turns out the most common characteristic of failed entrepreneurs is stubbornness… which is persistence without creativity.

Close minded passion is a kind of narcissistic poison. So, it appears Collins was dead right. Great leaders are both driven and humble; committed and open-minded. Rare qualities indeed. So how about you?

As the chief entrepreneur of your own career, are you at level five?

Do you have strongly held opinions about your career or your work that lead you to only look for evidence that confirms what you already believe? It is possible to reinvent your future. New research reveals that 93% of successful startups fundamentally change their business strategy in order to succeed. In other words the first business plan didn’t work.  It’s no shame if you’re stuck.  Just don’t spin your wheels. If things are not turning out the way you expected…stop doing what you’re doing.

Spend 30 minutes every morning for the next week reflecting on your deepest desires.

Ask “what’s something new that I could do that might get me on track…” that’s open-mindedness.  And if you are moving in the right direction, ask yourself “what can I do to accelerate progress?” Do that.

Note to women leaders:

I find that women are often a little too open minded in the workplace. It’s common for women to have a hard time saying “no” when other people want to mess with your agenda. You may have been so busy helping others achieve their goals that you become a bit timid in recruiting others to help you achieve yours.

So exercise your strong commitment muscles necessary for level five leadership. Don’t apologize for your vision, your goals and the fury of your commitment.


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