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How to Be a Leadership Hero

by | Sep 15, 2016

I’m going to walk you through a brief but thought-provoking exercise that I’ve done with many groups of leaders from organizations far and wide. The exercise is intended to help you to approach your leadership more thoughtfully so you can perform better, and inspire even greater commitment from the people you lead in each moment. Read the next two paragraphs first and then perform the reflection.

First, close your eyes. Think back on your life and leadership journey thus far. Now, envision the person(s) who positively touched your life in the most profound way.

Think:

  • Who has had the biggest and most enduring influence?
  • Who had your back?
  • Who shaped your values and beliefs?
  • Who left an indelible imprint on how you walk in the world?
  • Who is your hero?

It might be a parent, teacher, coach, friend, or even a boss. It’s likely there is a resonant snippet of advice that lingers, or a shared moment that you carry with you to this day. Often you can inhabit a memory of this mentor so vividly that you can still hear them speaking their words of inspiration to you years, even decades later. Go even deeper into the memory. As you reflect on your interactions with this person, ask yourself, “Did this person hold me to high standards? Did they always expect the best from me and hold me accountable?” The answer is likely a resounding, “yes.” Now, ask yourself if it was clear this person cared deeply about you and was invested in your well-being and success. The answer again is of course, “yes.”

Who touched your life in the  most profound way?

After you’ve conjured your memory of this impactful person, and sat with the recollection for a minute or so, it’s helpful to ask yourself, “Why can’t I be this special person to the people with whom I live and work?” The answer is: you can. You already know what it looks like. You’ve lived it. And you know, from your memories of this extraordinary individual, that the way they behaved towards you is the way other people also deserve to be treated. It’s a powerful, visceral truth.

So how do we go about mastering the behavior necessary to embody our heroes – to become the person that people might remember when they think back on their journey? The answer lies in adopting the abundant approach to leadership. The abundant approach rejects the limiting word “or” and allows for what Jim Collins calls, “the genius of the ‘and.’” This one tip is the cornerstone of effectively leading others.

Be Tough-Minded on Standards and Tender-Hearted with People.

Times are tough. High expectations are an undisputed necessity. But they aren’t enough. Just like those who have deeply influenced us, we must be simultaneously tough on standards of performance and caring towards the people we influence with our leadership. We must interact with others in a way that makes them want to be their best — just like our heroes did in their interactions with us. If we hope to create enduring high-performance relationships, there can’t be any doubt about our level of sincerity, commitment, and desire to help.

You can delight in working with the people around you.

This means we can’t drift into the path of least resistance. There is no room for laziness; we can’t complacently settle for an “either, or” approach to our leadership. The people in our lives deserve better. We owe it to them to set high standards and to hold them accountable for reaching those standards. And, we owe it to these same individuals to respectfully care deeply about them and to contribute to their success in whatever way we can.

abundant leadership

In fact, when you combine these two notions, the magic that is created is not only highly effective but it’s also often deeply enjoyable. An abundant mentality leads to interactions that are not only impactful but also gratifying and lively. Just as you likely have fond, even fun, memories of the time you spent with your heroes – so too can you delight in working with the people around you and they can delight in engaging with your leadership.

Embracing the “and” allows for two fundamental and essential notions:

  1. By consistently expecting high performance, we demonstrate the level of accomplishment we know others can achieve. High standards denote faith in their ability and trust in their commitment.
  2. By asking sincerely, “how can I help?” we show that we are equally invested in their success. Tender-heartedness expresses our desire to be of service and evidences our deep respect for the other party.

Start practicing right away.

The next time you feel yourself compelled toward one approach or another — reject the “or” and lean in to the “and.” Using your own personal heroes as inspiration, strive to incorporate both high standards and a tender heart into each interaction so that your contributions are the most meaningful. This is how you begin to pay forward the lasting influence the special people on your journey have cast in your life; this is how to be a leadership hero to others.

Continue Your Learning:

We want to hear from you: What are some words from your mentors that stick with you to this day? How do you strive to be a hero to the people in your life and leadership?

Doug Conant is remarkable—and so is this work.
– Stephen M. R. Covey
Author of The Speed of Trust

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8 Comments

  1. Jane Hyun

    We find in our work that the most effective leaders are the ones that can manage the dichotomy (or paradox) of different perspectives. Your perspective on being tough on standards and tenderhearted with people resonates well in these uncertain times.

  2. Jane Hyun

    We find in our work that the most effective leaders are the ones that can manage the dichotomy (or paradox) of different perspectives. Your perspective on being tough on standards and tenderhearted with people resonates well in these uncertain times.

  3. DouglasConant

    Jane, thank you so much for sharing your thoughts. In agreement with what you’ve found in your work, an ability to listen and respond effectively to different perspectives is crucial to contributing in a meaningful way.

  4. DouglasConant

    Jane, thank you so much for sharing your thoughts. In agreement with what you’ve found in your work, an ability to listen and respond effectively to different perspectives is crucial to contributing in a meaningful way.

  5. Jon M

    One of my first bosses out of MBA school was a great manufacturing guy. He told a story often about himself and how angry he would get at people and had to always be in control. And then he had a heart-attack. He thought then “If I am so damn smart, why am I laying here?” After his recovery, he chose a different leadership path and embraced, encouraged, and coached others. He still had high standards but focused on how to make others better. His story still resonates with me. Great post, Doug, and solid reminders. Thanks. Jon

    • DouglasConant

      Jon, thank you very much for sharing your comments and for sharing that anecdote — it wonderfully illustrates the positive effects of choosing an abundant approach to leadership.

  6. Jon M

    One of my first bosses out of MBA school was a great manufacturing guy. He told a story often about himself and how angry he would get at people and had to always be in control. And then he had a heart-attack. He thought then “If I am so damn smart, why am I laying here?” After his recovery, he chose a different leadership path and embraced, encouraged, and coached others. He still had high standards but focused on how to make others better. His story still resonates with me. Great post, Doug, and solid reminders. Thanks. Jon

    • DouglasConant

      Jon, thank you very much for sharing your comments and for sharing that anecdote — it wonderfully illustrates the positive effects of choosing an abundant approach to leadership.

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