We are slowly but surely accepting that one does not one day decide to be (or become) a leader. Rather, other people—staff, peers, colleagues—choose to be (or become) followers. Research has pretty well established that genuine leadership consists of a complex and diverse set of behaviors that can, must, be learned and practiced—and are useless in the long run if not authentic to the practitioner.
So, the changing face is not at all similar to being two-faced. And the new look (with accompanying talk and walk) is not merely facing up to the perceived demands of the dreaded millennials, but is a recognition of the wants, desires, needs, and motivators of all generations in the workplace.BUY 'EM BOOKS AND THEY CHEW THE COVERS
We have been very nearly buried in piles of books that claim to reveal the leadership secrets of any number of well-known individuals. Sometimes useful, in a transient way, these tend toward being essentially vanity publications that permit the famous to receive outrageous advance payments for books that go largely unread on their short path to the remainders bin.
The ostensible authors range from politicians to industrialists to military commanders. In the main, these self-congratulatory screeds seem to rationalize actions, decisions, and behaviors by organizing them into a structure, however rickety, that can masquerade as an organized leadership philosophy.
But they tend not to be systematically sustainable. That is, they appear to offer a concise set of values, beliefs, and principles, but are generally short on the details of how one develops and maintains them. They are slogans, buzzwords, and platitudes, and not so much programs with intentionally structured elements and observable, measurable outcomes.ARE THE USER MANUALS WRITTEN IN ANOTHER LANGUAGE?
All is not lost. We have more than the superficial pretenders to work with. To be blunt, truckloads of valid research have been published. But these works are not always well-written and suffer, probably unfairly, from academic origins. We can learn from them, but they typically do not make useful guidebooks for lay readers to use in crafting their own leadership pathways.
Happily, there are life-altering exceptions. Because each author begins with an individual experience base and has his or her own philosophical biases, the specifics of leadership development programs can vary widely. No worries. What is important is not Method A versus Method B; what counts is how the reader adapts and maintains—and keeps practicing the principles with rigor, discipline, and consistency. And how the self-committed leader creates ripples in the pond by extending accountability of leadership throughout the surrounding organization.PUT ME IN, COACH; I'M READY
Many of our leadership exemplars and imaginings come from the ranks of athletic leadership. And many of these are PR creations or last-century leftovers, or both. We have a romantic notion of a team being implored to win one for the Gipper, or to buckle down and shock the world with an upset win over a bigger, faster, smarter opponent. We think of Wayne Woodrow Hayes, Bear Bryant, Knute Rockne. Even such stalwarts as those icons acknowledged that a coach could only "motivate" a team for a couple of games a year; the rest were a matter of talent and tactics.
So, knowing that, how effective is the cheerleading leader likely to be over any sustained period?
Other notable cases come from the military—some exceptional, some mundane, some bureaucrats, some still figuring out how to fight the last war. Washington, Eisenhower, Patton, Grant, deGaulle, Rommel, MacArthur, Montgomery, Petraeus. There are ample cases of new-century military leaders who have turned the old command and control model on its ear. And there are legions who know that things are changing but don't know exactly how.
So, with all that background, how effective today is leading into battle versus sending troops into combat?COACHES GO TO SCHOOL
The difference between coaches as uber-bosses and coaches as organized and authentic leaders is growing—and becoming more obvious—daily. The obvious beacons in contemporary college football coaching, Nick Saban and Urban Meyer, would be appalled at any suggestion that they are successful because they rule by fear, or that they scream loudest, are most persuasive in one-on-one recruiting promises, or are master motivators in half-time pleas and sermons.
To shine the torch on Urban Meyer, to illustrate, he has had the benefit of a series of relationships with mentors, generally of the Old School—Earle Bruce, Lou Holtz, Sonny Lubick, Bob Davie. But he learned from each and all of them, and incorporated what he learned into an emerging philosophy of leadership and achievement. And he has actively cultivated other learning relationships, with such people as Nike's Phil Knight, JPMorganChase's Jamie Dimon, Jon Gruden, John Robinson, and Bill Belichick.
In turn, Meyer has become a mentor, with numerous assistants moving on to head coaching leadership positions and taking the lessons of new leadership with them. Tom Herman, Dan Mullen, Charlie Strong, Chris Ash, Tim Beckman, Steve Addazio, Doc Holliday, Gary Anderson, Everett Withers, Dan McCarney, Kyle Whittingham, and Gregg Brandon. Ripples on the pond, or waves of the future that are upon us?PIECES AND PARTS
In a stroke of fortune, Meyer found a voice to speak what he had learned and articulate what more he needed to master as a sustainable leader. Tim Kight, founder and CEO of Focus 3, has provided process and structure to help Meyer leave his past negatives behind and carry his positives into new realms as he has used life epiphanies to transform his journey and inform his paying forward, developing leadership skills and capabilities in those around him. A key is that Kight's approach embodies a system and is not a collection of slogans or a burst of cheerleading.
The details would take more space than we have to work with, but some core elements include:
There's more, of course. It's all in Meyer's 2015 book, Above the Line, published by Penguin Press.A TAKEAWAY
My favorite, frankly, is Meyer's take on leveraging emerging leadership, in which assistant coaches and top 10 percent standouts are accountable for moving the middle 80 percent up into the top tier—and not wasting any precious time on rehabilitating lost causes, the bottom 10 percent. That alone can make the elusive "good to great" progression a practical reality.
So, whether you take the Urban Meyer model or another that's equally comprehensive and balanced, I'll pose the challenge. Are you really a leader or an emerging leader? Are you willing and able to dedicate enough of yourself to create a culture and link behavior to outcomes, rather than simply show up and do a job? Are you ready and willing to make those game-changing ripples in the pond?
I hope you are; the profession needs you—as a real leader—desperately.