The three most exciting days in my life have been March 7, 1987, April 19, 1989 and September 1, 1994. On those dates my three children were born—and I was there, an eyewitness to the miracle of three human births.
I remember staring down at those little pink, wrinkled, newborn packages of undeveloped potential, trying to imagine their futures. Clairvoyant I wasn’t. But I believed then and now that their futures would be determined less by their DNA (looks, IQ, or personality) and more by the formative support and encouragement they would receive and the individual choices they would make.
I believe the same to be essentially true for leaders. Let’s face facts. All leaders are born—but none are born leaders. Leaders develop over time, in stages much like babies. They must learn to crawl before they stand; stand before they walk; and walk before they run.
The best leaders learn to lead through the support and focused encouragement provided by experienced leaders. As an experienced leader, we should embrace the opportunity and professional responsibility to live out the credo: Each one, teach one.
But like children, young leaders also learn by experimentation—trial and error—absorbing their fair share of bumps and bruises along the way. All leaders make mistakes. The best leaders look for the lessons in those mistakes, making adjustments for the future and maturing accordingly.
Every day a leader is born. It is our privilege to help guide that individual along his or her path to learning to lead.
Discussion: Are Leaders Born or Are Leaders Made?
Today marks the beginning of a weekly series of discussions on the 11 Ground Rules for Common Sense Leadership. I would like to hear your opinions and comments so I invite you to join the discussion.
Please comment here or if you prefer, join the discussion in our Leaders Ought to Know group on LinkedIn.
Phillip Van Hooser
Leadership Expert, Keynote Speaker, Author – Leaders Ought to Know: 11 Ground Rules for Common Sense Leadership
A while back, I found myself engaged in a rather spirited conversation with an admittedly frustrated manager. He had spent the better part of the morning sitting through one of my leadership training retreats. One in which we dissected the concept of various leadership roles, responsibilities and results. My single-minded focus had been to help those present develop a blueprint of sorts that could enhance their own daily personal leadership activities. It was a positive exercise. But, all morning I could tell the concepts weren’t exactly clicking with this individual. So during our first break, I pulled him aside and asked him, “Why isn’t this working for you?”
“Phil, it’s not that it’s not working,” he began earnestly. “I realize the importance of what you’re sharing. But, I keep waiting to hear you tell me what I really need most right now. Tell me why these new employees I have been hiring lately are not working out.” He continued.
“I do extensive searches to find the most qualified candidates available. Once we get them hired and trained, we provide them the necessary tools, resources and support to allow them to be successful in their new jobs. Then, I stand back anxiously awaiting their success. Instead, too often, I end up watching the wheels come off before my very eyes. My department’s productivity drops. Our quality ratings suffer. The customer is far from being satisfied. Trying to find what motivates these people is like trying to find the lost city of Atlantis. It’s impossible! In the midst of all that, the overall morale of my best, most senior employees has dropped to an all time low. Now, if you really want to make this a good, worthwhile leadership development program, just show me what I am doing wrong and help me fix it. Then I will leave here a happy man!”
The challenge was clearly before me. Though I admittedly didn’t have all the answers for his questions and frustrations, I did recognize one fundamental problem in his approach that, over time I’ve discovered, has tripped up a great number of otherwise well-meaning managers.
“Well, the first thing you should realize is you don’t always want the most qualified candidates for every job,” I stated rather matter-of-factly. The gentleman shot me a quick look of disbelief. I could almost hear him thinking, “So this is the clown they picked to help make our organization better?”
Despite what he might have been thinking, his spoken response was more subtle and measured. “I’m confused,” he admitted. “I’ve always been taught that a good manager surrounds himself with the most qualified people available. Now you’re telling me that those are exactly the persons I don’t want?”
“Possibly,” I countered. “And here’s the reason why. The ‘most qualified’ candidates, often are simply not the ‘best suited’ candidates for the jobs we need to fill. Do you understand what I mean?”
The manager’s confusion was obvious and predictable. I was suggesting a concept that ran counter to much of what he had been taught and had practiced throughout his professional managerial career. Yes, he was confused, but he was also curious. By his own earlier admission, the way he was doing it now was simply not working as he planned. He knew there had to be a better way, he just hadn’t discovered what that better way was. Therefore, he was open to suggestions. That’s what brought him to my training session in the first place.
For the next several minutes we talked as I shared with him some thoughts as to why the ‘best suited’ employees trumped the ‘most qualified’ employees almost every time. He seemed to find value in our discussion and maybe you will too.
One practical reason why we shouldn’t always hire the “most qualified” candidates is purely economic. We may not be able to afford them. As a result of the education and experience the “most qualified” individuals possess, they frequently expect and command premium compensation in the marketplace. To pay them what they are worth may be impractical due both to limited financial resources and to the possible internal inconsistencies that would be created by paying this “new” employee (regardless of how qualified he or she may be) at a rate over and above that which other more experienced, long term employees are paid.
A second practical reason involves professional flexibility. Many of us have discovered the hard way, that the more experienced and qualified an individual is, often the less flexible he or she may be to learning new and tailored ways of doing things. In other words, the “most qualified” individuals may already “know” what works (based on their past education and experiences) and therefore, be less willing to listen and learn about the history of how and why things are done the way they are in this organization.
Coupled with the reason listed above, another practical reason for concern deals with the type of reception offered the “most qualified” new employees by their new co-workers and teammates. If the existing work group is intimidated or frustrated by the manner in which new, highly touted employees enter the established work group, then dissension, teamwork and morale problems can result. It takes a skillful leader to be able to introduce new, high performing individuals into an established work group without negatively disrupting the chemistry of the group. It’s not impossible. It can be done. But it must always be done with great care and consideration.
Finally, observant leaders must always be on the lookout for any internal activity that might offer even the slightest impression or indication of legal impropriety or inappropriateness. Let me offer an example of what I mean. Assume, if you will, that you are just concluding an interview with an extremely well qualified candidate for a current job opening. During the course of the interview, you had already made the conscious decision that this candidate would not be a good fit for the position you have available. The candidate was obviously over-qualified, or too expensive, or too inflexible, or too cocky, or, well, you get the picture. It’s not that she is a bad person, it’s just that she’s not the “best suited” person for this job.
Just before bringing the interview to its end, you ask if she has any lingering questions? She offers only one, “What are you looking for in the candidate you will ultimately hire to fill this position?” Ever so innocently, you respond by saying among other things, “our intent is to fill this job with the ‘most qualified’ person available.” You didn’t really think about what you said, you just said it. But she thought very carefully about the specific words you used. You were just saying what you thought was the right thing to say. But what she heard was an implied promise.
Later on, once she learns that she has been passed over for the position, if she discovers the job was filled by a less educated, less experienced, less senior individual, a very real possibility exists that she will assume she has been ultimately discriminated against. After all, she heard you say, “Our intent is to fill this job with the ‘most qualified’ person available,” and in her mind, that means her. Is a lawsuit imminent? Not necessarily. That depends on factors too numerous to address here. But, why put ourselves in such a position of risk? It’s not worth it.
I can’t say whether or not the gentleman that initiated the exchange that led to this article actually left “a happy man” or not. I do think he left with a better understanding of the significance of the words we use, when coupled with the responsibility that comes with our roles as supervisors, managers and leaders. I wish the same for you.
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How many times in your role as leader have you experienced a clashing of attitudes or ideas with one of your followers or even another employee? How often are you called in to mediate or resolve situations where people just don’t see eye to eye on an issue? It happens frequently, doesn’t it? And if you’re like most people, you find these situations uncomfortable and full of emotional minefields.
As leaders, we recognize that problems like these need to be addressed, but so many of us hate and therefore avoid the confrontation we know needs to take place. We say things like, “this will only make matters worse.” “I’m not sure I can control my emotions.” “Maybe if I give it some time, the issue will resolve itself.” Do any of these sound familiar? Probably so. Unfortunately, it is at best, wishful thinking.
Knowing how to successfully manage a confrontation is a skill that all leaders need in their toolkit. If you’ve been avoiding confrontation for fear of doing more harm than good, consider equipping yourself with these techniques for managing the situation effectively.
How to Manage a Confrontation
1. Prepare yourself in advance. Clearly determine the cause for the confrontation. Are you addressing a performance issue, an unacceptable attitude or perhaps a safety issue? Also determine the purpose or the goal for the confrontation. What do you want the confrontation to achieve? How do you want to be perceived after the confrontation? With these answers in mind, it will be easier to stay on target during the confrontation.
2. Do not procrastinate if a confrontation is necessary. Many leaders try to convince themselves that the problem with work itself out or dissipate if left alone. Putting off what needs to be addressed allows more time for emotions to grow and frustrations to fester. The reality is that bad news does not get better with time.
3. Avoid extreme emotional involvement. Never initiate a confrontation when you are emotionally charged. This is difficult, but that is why preparing yourself in advance is so important.
4. Choose carefully the time and place for the confrontation. Go behind closed doors if possible. Confrontation in front of an audience invites embarrassment and offers undue opportunities for “emotional performances.” Consider timing the confrontation at the end of the work day. This gives the other person an easy exit for cooling off and considering the issue.
5. Work to determine the other person’s driving needs. Try to evaluate the issue from their vantage point.
6. Willing accept some measure of responsibility for the situation – admit fault if you are to blame in part or in total.
7. Allow the other person time to vent. Remember, you have had the advantage of sorting through your emotions before initiating this confrontation. Give the other person the same opportunity.
8. Zero in on the problem, not the person. Positive confrontation focuses on the problem. Negative confrontation focuses on the person. Frame the conversation in terms of specific expectations for future performance. Encourage feedback regarding alternative solutions or approaches for managing the issue.
You may not find a solution immediately. You may never completely agree on the issue. But a leader’s responsibility is to address difficult issues and ensure steps are taken to work toward a mutually agreeable solution. It’s hard work – and something that leaders ought to know.
You know, a lot of people like to pretend that they basically have no fear, of if they do have a fear, it’s minor, and therefore, has very little bearing on who they are and what they do. Well, the reality that I’ve found in life is that we all have fears, some big, some small, but in their own inimitable way, every fear will in fact affect us. We can either grow through it, or we can be, well, we can be shackled by them.
I wanted you to think about a fear though today, specifically a fear that maybe most people don’t consider. If I asked you what you were afraid of and we were sitting face-to-face having a conversation, you might be saying, “Well, I’m afraid of flying” or “I’m afraid of speaking in public” or “I’m afraid of failing at something.” All of those things are things that even those that don’t like to admit their fears, well, they don’t have as much problem or as much hesitancy admitting those as others.
But, the fear that I want to talk about is the fear of success. You know, telling someone that they’re afraid of succeeding is counterintuitive to most folks. Most people say, “I’m afraid of the very thing that I’m working toward, that I’m striving for, that I’m sacrificing as a result of?” And, the answer is, all too often unfortunately, yes. Yes, we’re fearful of succeeding.
I remember several years ago when I was still working as a Human Resource Manager in corporate America, it was my job to post job bids. And, what that meant was when a job came open in the plant, our policy was that we would write up a description of that job and we would place it in a public place so that all employees would have an opportunity to see it. If they were interested, they would sign their name or make me aware of their interest, and they would be interviewed and considered for the possibility of being placed in that position.
Well, on this particular occasion, I had a job, a very specific job that had very unique requirements for it, descriptions for it, very unique skills and experiences that would fit it. And, as I was working at the job description, in preparation to post that job description, I kept thinking of one individual in the company that would be perfect for the job.
And, it was so pressing on my mind that this one individual had all the unique skills and abilities, talents, backgrounds, etc, that would fit very, very nicely into the position, that I did something that I normally, in that role as Human Resource Manager, that I normally would have never done.
I went and posted the job on the board, but then I made a beeline to this particular individual. I sat down across her desk and I said…we’ll call her Wanda. I said, “Wanda, do you realize that there’s a job posting for a job.” And, I mentioned the job. “There’s a job posting up now for consideration.” She said, “Yeah, I knew that that was going up.” I said, “Well, I’m glad. Have you thought about that job?” And she said, “Well, yeah. I’m pretty familiar with the job.”
I said to her then, “Wanda, I’ve been thinking about the job and as far as I can tell from the requirements of the job versus what you bring to your position today, you would be the perfect candidate. You have the right experience. You have the right education. You have the right temperament.” It just went on and on. “You would be the perfect candidate for this particular job.”
To my surprise, she looked at me and said, “Yes, I would. Yes, I would, Phil. I thought exactly the same thing. I read the job description, or at least was familiar with it, and I know that I could do this job. I could be successful in this job. I know I would be the perfect candidate for this job.” I went, “Well, that’s great. So, you’re going to sign up for the job then?” She said, “Oh, no. No, I’m not.”
I said, “You’re not? You just now said you’d be a perfect fit for the job.” She said, “Yes, I would.” I said, “Then, why not sign up for the job?” She looked at me, and she said, “Phil, when I was successful in this job, and I would eventually be successful, the reason I’m not signing up is I would not know what you guys would want me to do next.”
In other words, she was saying, “I have no fear that I would be successful. I only fear what would happen as a result of the success.” In other words, because she could not predict what would happen next, she would choose not to be successful at something she was, well, ultimately confident that she could, in fact, succeed at.
Think about that for a moment. It happens a lot. Sales people do not exceed their quota, even though they could, even though they’re having a wonderful quarter or a wonderful year, they don’t go beyond what their quota is because they’re fearful that exceeding their quota this year means that they might have their quota raised next year. Never mind that they could reach it easily. Never mind that would even benefit or profit from it. They don’t like the idea of being successful and not being able to predict what that will entail in the future.
I think that’s very shortsighted for leaders. I think we, as leaders, need to be constantly and continuously striving for success, success in our communications, success in our visioning, success in literally everything that we do as a leader without fear of what will happen, but rather, with faith that what does happen in the future would be able to be attended to, accomplished, and succeeded at.
I’ve always said that success breeds success, but unfortunately, fear also breeds new fears. As leaders, I think we need to lead in such a way that others see us striving for success even when the future is still unknown. In so doing, we may set the standard and we may offer a picture of encouragement for others who would be following us.
Anything we can do to be successful and help others be successful at the same light without the fears that may be associated with those successes, well, as far as I’m concerned, those are things we need to think about. Those are things that leaders ought to know.
It’s sad to say, but too many organizations around the world still don’t see the value of investing in the professional development of their most valuable resource—their people.
They ask short-sighted questions like, “Why would any organization invest resources, in times like these, developing leaders when there’s no guarantee that they’ll even stay with us?”
Or, how about this one: “What’s wrong with people today learning leadership the old-fashioned way, like I did — by the seat of the pants?”
Choosing to ignore the need for focused professional leadership development may appear to be an option for some organizations — just not the great ones. Companies like Proctor and Gamble, Nokia, Amway, Rockwell Collins, Capital One Financial and General Electric, to name a few, have long recognized the value — and profit — associated with developing leaders internally.
In an August 2010 article published in the Wall Street Journal, the author made the following points:
• Business layoffs and cutbacks in recent years have thinned the manager pipelines.
• Baby boomers who postponed retirement during the recession will soon start departing.
Too many organizations, for too long have turned a blind eye to the inevitable reality that their supervisors and managers were aging. Supervisors and managers you work with are beginning to vacate their leadership positions in droves. Unfortunately, too many organizations have done too little to address their succession planning needs in a practical way.
In other words, the need for more and better leaders is not just a future need — they are needed now.
An earlier article in FORTUNE magazine put it this way, “Your competition can copy every advantage you’ve got—except one. That’s why the best companies are realizing that no matter what business they’re in, the real business is building leaders.”
But, back to that earlier question: Why is leadership training even necessary?
First, there exists a dire need for more effective leaders in almost every business organization in the world. Second, employees and people of all kinds and cultures have a strong desire to follow — to be led. Finally, well trained leaders today can actually make a difference for the organizations they represent — a difference in profitability, a difference in productivity, a difference in on-time performance, a difference in employee engagement, even a difference in safety awareness.
These well trained leaders create a lasting difference by establishing a culture of leadership that is sure to permeate the organization and extend well beyond their time of individual service.
The success and viability of organizations in the future is quite literally being shaped today by the quality and capability of that organization’s leaders.
Not too long ago I was working on-site with a corporate client, conducting leadership training. An employee approached me and asked if we could talk. As soon as the conversation began, it became quite clear that the employee was terribly upset with his supervisor. For the next few minutes, he railed on about a mistake he believed his supervisor had made and how that perceived injustice was continuing to affect his performance in a negative way. He questioned how such a fundamental mistake, in his mind, at least, could have happened in the first place. Finally, in an exasperated tone, he ended his remarks to me with this statement:
“Leaders ought to know better.” Now there’s an interesting concept, I thought.
Let’s face the facts. Most of us were never formally trained to be a leader. Most of the managers and supervisors I know, initially earned their opportunity to be in a position of leadership because they were smart, hard working and really good at what they did before being promoted to a leadership position.
The engineer had a proven ability to analyze schematics in the search for inaccuracies, while the accountant was adept at interpreting the nuances of a balance sheet with relative ease. They were good at what they did because that’s what they had studied and trained to do. After years of hands-on experience their proven ability and performance had elevated them to a level of competence and visibility, thus earning them a positive reputation and recognition for the good they did.
Then one day their boss called this peak performer into her office and announced that she had good news. After much careful deliberation, it had been determined this person had earned the right to be promoted to the level of supervision or management. In other words, overnight this person was promoted to a position of leadership.
But, did that make them a leader? For far too many of us, that’s where the trouble begins.
The person was confident and capable in his or her ability read blueprints or to create an amazing spreadsheet, but far less sure about their ability to communicate group objectives effectively, to lead their new team through a process of consensual decision making or to successfully accomplish the dozens of other responsibilities expected of a leader daily.
This was all new territory. They hadn’t been trained for this. And add to the equation that from day one, the employees and individuals this newly minted leader had been tapped to lead were thinking, “Someone in an important leadership position like his or hers, well, they just ought to know better.”
That’s why we’re here – because there are some really important things that Leaders Ought To Know.
But we don’t want this to be a monologue on leadership – we consider it a conversation and we want you to join the exchange. Your insights will make the discussions more relevant and on point, so please share your questions, comments and perspectives at any time. Because Leaders Ought To Know…
Phillip Van Hooser
Founder & Concept Director