Thursday, August 18, 2016

Three (Not So) Surprising Lessons of Leadership

Guest post from Joel Peterson:

For the past decade, I’ve been privileged to teach a leadership course at Stanford with Professor Charles O’Reilly. The amazing array of leaders who’ve visited our classroom has included Greg Boyle (the Jesuit priest who founded Home Boy Industries) and Steve Ballmer (Microsoft’s former long-time CEO); star athletes like NFL quarterback Steve Young and MBA point guard Kevin Johnson (now mayor of Sacramento); former White House chief of staff Andy Card, Bloomin’ Brands CEO Liz Smith, and retired four-star general Stanley McChrystal.

Such outstanding leaders – and others from the ranks of startups, politics, popular culture, and big business – hail from every ethnicity, family and educational background, and rung on the social ladder. Some emerged early in their careers, while some blossomed late. Some of these leaders are reflective, others instinctive. Some are funny, others humorless. Their leadership styles are similarly variable. Some work their magic from positions of informal influence, others from the top spot on an organizational chart. Some are visionaries, others are tacticians. Some lead by charisma, others by consensus building.

As diverse as they are, I’ve found that leaders do have certain things in common.  And that the following three characteristics of leadership still surprise many:

1. Leaders get results through others. The ability to delegate might seem obvious, but it’s a major challenge for young people who have excelled because of their ability to deliver results. In many cases they stumble as leaders for the very reason they’ve been such good producers; what served them well when they couldn’t trust others to do the job becomes their Achilles heel as a leader. The transition from being a producer to being a leader is one all of our standout guests have learned.

Learning to “scale” through delegation means dealing with the imperfections and occasional failures of others. But more than that, it means becoming really good in the first place at hiring talented people and retaining them – as well as at replacing those who don’t “fit” so well. It also means using one’s leadership position to inspire. The job of a great leader is less about hands-on execution than it is about being confident enough to create a team of competent people who are on the same page. I like to remember General George Patton’s advice: “Don’t tell people how to do things – tell them what to do and let them surprise you with their results.”  

2. Leaders teach inductively.  Great leaders, unlike great scholars, tend to be inductive thinkers, reasoning from the specific to the general, from the story to the principle. They are storytellers, illustrating core values with memorable, colorful anecdotes. These leaders have often achieved a “far-side simplicity” that reflects the statement of Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.: “I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity; but I would give my life for the simplicity the other side of complexity.”

3. Leaders have wisdom. Popular culture seems to cast many leaders as merely ambitious or politically savvy, even greedy or self-referencing. By contrast, great leaders are trusted. They’re trusted because they have wisdom, being able to “see around corners” and lead an organization to “all-things-considered” optimum results.

Great leaders are rare. They invariably leave organizations better off than they found them, empowered to sustain and improve on the foundations they’ve laid. Great leaders are at the center, but they are not the center –precisely because they’ve learned to trust and to delegate, to identify and celebrate a unifying narrative, and to predict and deliver results. When leaders internalize these lessons, the like-minded followers they attract ensure an enduring legacy.

Author Bio:
Joel Peterson (Twitter: @JoelCPeterson), chairman of JetBlue and a longtime consulting professor at the Stanford Business School, is the author of the new book “The 10 Laws of Trust: Building the Bonds That Make a Business Great.”

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