Learning How to Lead

leader in me

Leadership is critical to global economies — the evidence is all around us. Leaders of nations impact economic growth through the executive actions they take. Leaders of global, multinational companies impact employment, investment, and consumer spending through their decisions. Cultural and religious leaders bring about changes in entire societies through the ideologies they promote, and the initiatives they spearhead. Yet, MBA programs notwithstanding, leadership is not something that is easily taught. Colleges and universities teach students the arts, the sciences, medicine, engineering, accounting, law or any number of other disciplines, but it is rare to see a degree program focused exclusively on leadership.

Perhaps this is because leadership is not something that can be addressed in a vacuum — it requires context. Who is being led, and for what purpose? Is leadership an activity, a set of skills, or both? In fact, even defining leadership succinctly is a challenge — one that influential management gurus have struggled with. Warren Bennis, an early pioneer in “leadership studies,” defined leadership as the capacity to translate vision into reality. Bill Gates, who presumably knows a thing or two about leadership, described it in terms of empowering others. Yet others define leadership in terms of the behaviors and attributes of exceptional leaders. Peter Drucker, for example, famously said that the only definition of a leader is someone who has followers. I have to assume he was being facetious, since his definition tells us very little.

My own view is admittedly rather simplistic — I believe that leadership is an acquired skill, no different from learning how to work effectively with others, or how to communicate better, or how to deal with conflict. And as with those other soft skills, some are more naturally gifted at leadership than others — but that doesn’t have to stop the rest of us from learning by doing, by watching great leaders in action, or by being taught by coaches and mentors. I’ve been fortunate in this respect — at various points in my career, I’ve had role models who taught me through their own example. In turn, I did my part — I internalized those lessons, tried them out, honed my skills, and whenever I had a chance, tried to impart those lessons to the people I had the privilege to coach and mentor. Here are three of those leadership lessons, and the role models I learned them from.

Do whatever it takes to get the job done

Years ago, in my first month in graduate school, I went to talk to the Chair of the Engineering Graphics department regarding a graduate teaching assistantship. On getting there, I saw a distinguished gentleman in a coat and tie, sitting at the administrative assistant’s desk near a row of faculty offices. Seeing my look of surprise, he pointed to the sign on the desk, which had his name, with a handwritten note below it: “Chair, Professor, Administrative Assistant, Whatever is Needed Today.” He went on to explain that the department’s administrative assistant had quit unexpectedly due to personal reasons, and he was filling in until he could get a replacement. The message was clear — as Chair, he wanted to ensure the continued smooth functioning of the department and was willing to do whatever was needed to make that happen. No job was “beneath” him if it helped further the department’s goals. The footnote to the story is that I got the teaching assistant job — which gave me the opportunity to watch my role model in action for another couple of years.

Value the people who work for you

My second story is one that I have written about before, but in a different context. Straight out of graduate school, I went to work for a manager who was as accomplished and driven as they come. She had a Ph.D. from Berkeley, had done ground-breaking research in her field, and at a fairly young age, was one of the top technologists in the R&D division of one of the largest companies in the world. One day, in a quiet moment over lunch, I asked her what her most outstanding career achievement was up until that point. There were any number of things she could have said, but I was not prepared for her answer. It was simple and powerful, and I have never forgotten it: “My greatest career accomplishment is the success of the people I have managed, coached and mentored.” I knew she meant every word of it because she was always direct and forthright. Not only that, but thinking back about her managerial traits in hindsight, I realized that she had indeed demonstrated that principle through her actions. Although she was a demanding manager, always impatient for results, and one who did not suffer fools gladly, she never passed up an opportunity to let her team shine. She didn’t hesitate to let us try and fail. And she always listened thoughtfully to our ideas even if she didn’t always agree with them.

Inspire, motivate, and challenge

My third leadership lesson came a bit later in my career — and I have previously written about this as well. At the time, I was the head of the supply chain for the specialty care product portfolio at a large pharmaceutical company. The specialty care operating unit was facing some significant challenges at the time — technical, operational and financial. At our quarterly leadership team meeting, one of our operating unit leaders gave an inspiring talk on how our response to the challenges would define our character as a team, and how that shared sense of purpose could empower us to overcome those challenges. This wasn’t a pep talk to a high school soccer team before an important game — it was addressed to a room filled with people with specialized skills and years of experience in a whole range of areas. But the message was powerful — it reinforced the importance of our mission and our confidence in ourselves, and it issued a challenge that we needed to rise to. Sometimes, all we need it that little reminder of what we can accomplish if we believe, together. There is a happy ending to the story — we solved the immediate operational issues by securing capacity elsewhere, which gave us the time to fix the technical issues, while another part of the team managed to find the cost savings to keep us going financially.

We can all learn how to lead. Like other fields of human endeavor, the keys are in the desire to do it, the willingness to try and fail, and the drive to get better at it. Leadership lessons are often right within our grasp — in the actions of role models, in the words of coaches and mentors, and in our own self-awareness of what behaviors and actions work well or not.