Leadership by Surprise

May 22, 2015 | Bill Catlette | HCI
Share This

In his wonderful book, Leapfrogging, innovation expert Soren Kaplan challenges us to recall moments in our lives when we have encountered a breakthrough product, service, or experience… a WOW encounter if you will. Think, for example about the first time, likely as a young child, that you tasted ice cream. Or, later on in life, your first kiss - not the grandmotherly type ;). Or, perhaps, when you had your first encounter with an i-Device. Wow!

Kaplan then makes the point that, in each and every such occurrence, three things happen:

  1. We want more of it.
  2. We want to understand it.
  3. We want to tell others about it. We just can’t help wanting to share the joy with them.

This leads to a question. Why, in a world where consistently good (never mind great) leadership is in such short supply, shouldn’t we want our own leadership to be just such a breath of fresh air? Really!

Think about it. One of the few things in life that we have absolute control over is the taste we leave in someone’s mouth after they’ve had an encounter with us. Did they feel valued, respected? Did we listen, really listen to them, or merely tolerate their talking?

So what does all this say about your own leader development efforts? To me, it says that, for raw materials, each of us must start with an ego that can accept the notion that leadership is not all about us. Our temperament should be such that we can get by while taking a little less than our share of the air in a room, absorbing a little more than our share of responsibility, and sharing credit liberally with teammates. Absent any of these factors, we should probably find something else to do for a living.

From there, many of us need to gain additional awareness, skill, and muscle memory around the following:

  1. Developing a thick enough skin to survive getting beat up once in awhile, in the process of standing up for principle, or sticking up for a teammate. I’ve long maintained that a manager who doesn’t have at least one warning letter in their file isn’t risking enough. I’ll show you mine if you’ll show me yours.
  2. We need to become skilled at setting and then selling higher standards (achievable, but higher than the norm). That starts with what we expect from ourselves.
  3. We need to learn, and to teach new leaders about resilience… how to get through a difficult stretch or recover from a failed project, assignment, or other spill. Face it, they’re going to happen. Not unlike a surfer who gets knocked off her board by a rogue wave, we don’t have to like these experiences, but we do have to survive and learn from them.
  4. Most of us need to get better, a lot better at showing gratitude. Saying “Thank You” is a simple and important act, but we must learn to do it reflexively, often taking it a step further, explaining what we’re thankful for, while being mindful of the individual’s recognition preferences.
  5. Perhaps most importantly, we need to be better skilled and more accustomed to telling people the truth. One of the unkindest things we can do is to blow smoke up someone’s nose, be they a subordinate, peer, or boss (yes). People who have mastered the art of having courageous conversations can at once be both empathetic and candid, leaving the other person’s dignity in tact while still getting their point across.

What would be the net effect of people looking upon our leadership as they might the utter enchantment of an i-Device? Would it necessarily be a bad thing if they wanted more of it, wanted to better understand it, or tell others about it? I think not.

Moreover, what do you suppose it would do for engagement levels on your team, staff turnover levels, or the quality and depth of your applicant pipeline? What would it do for you, and your reputation, your career? Whether you do it for selfish or other reasons, get started today. It is well worth the effort, and time is not your friend.


Bill Catlette www.linkedin.com/in/billcatlette is an executive coach who helps business leaders connect the dots between People… Passion… Performance… and Profit. Reach out to him online at www.ContentedCows.com or @ContentedCows.