Unlock Your Leadership Potential

At a company sales conference, the corporate sales manager stood before 2,000 of his firm’s staff delivering a motivational speech. At one point he asked: “Did the Wright brothers ever quit?”

“No!” the sales force shouted back.

“Did Walt Disney ever quit?” he asked.

“No!” the salespeople shouted again.

“Did Lance Armstrong ever quit?” he asked.

“No!” they bellowed back.

Then, the sales manager asked: “Did Thorndike McKester ever quit?”

To that question there was confused silence. Finally, a salesperson stood up, asking, “Who in the world is Thorndike McKester? Nobody’s ever heard of him.” The sales manager snapped back, “Of course you’ve never heard of him – that’s because he quit!”

That humorous story clearly shows that leadership is not something mysterious, nor is it confined to a few who are naturally born with that skill. The sales manager’s lesson reveals that one simple but vital aspect of leadership is the mere ability to persevere. Whether you are a clerk or a CEO, a homemaker or a highly paid professional, life will consistently call on you to provide leadership. Rather than shrink from that call, believing that leadership is limited to a few creative and gifted individuals, rise to the challenge by reminding yourself that leaders are both born and made.

Many of the world’s greatest leaders evolved from humble beginnings. Peter Drucker, one of the world’s leading authorities on leadership, notes: “No institution can possibly survive if it needs geniuses or supermen to manage it. It must be organized in such a way as to be able to get along under a leadership composed of average human beings.” Here are eight ways to unlock your leadership potential:

1.  Listen, listen, listen. That is the advice of Sydney-based leadership consultant Megan Tough, who has written: “If there are unhappy or disgruntled people in your business, you can guarantee that at some stage they’ve tried to tell you what the problem is. It’s likely you weren’t listening (or didn’t want to listen), or perhaps your initial reaction made the person think twice about bringing the problem to you. Truly listening is one of the greatest skills to develop, regardless of your role. Good listeners are genuinely interested, convey empathy and want to find out what’s behind the conversation. Great leaders are great listeners – without exception.”

2.  Monitor your attitude. When times are tough, the temptation to become negative, cynical and despairing increases. Monitor your attitude. Remain optimistic and hopeful. Continue to pursue a successful, triumphant goal. Attitude determines outcome. Many prominent individuals first faced hardship before enjoying success:

  • When musician Bob Dylan first performed at a high-school talent show, classmates booed him off the stage.
  • Walt Disney went bankrupt and suffered a nervous breakdown before making his breakthrough in animation.
  • Sir Walter Raleigh wrote his best-selling The First Part of the History of the World while serving a 13-year prison sentence.
  • Dante wrote The Divine Comedy while under a sentence of death and during 20 years in exile.
  • Helen Keller was blinded and deafened as a young child but emerged to become a world-renowned author and lecturer well-known for her grace and charm.

3.  Cultivate the habit of going the extra mile. Give more, do more, offer more than is expected and you will both lead and succeed in life and work. Author and speaker Zig Ziglar tells of a young man who went that extra mile. It started when Ziglar checked into a Minneapolis hotel at 9 p.m. and began going over notes for his presentation the following day. Unpacking, he discovered he had neglected to bring a necktie. Panicking, he rushed downstairs to the gift shop, which was closed. The desk clerks told him there were no shops in the neighborhood open at that hour. Then, one of the other young men working the front desk – Jon Snyder – offered to help. With his supervisor’s approval, Snyder told Ziglar he lived near the hotel and offered to drive home and bring back several ties that would match Ziglar’s suit. “He returned promptly with a nice selection of ties, one of which worked perfectly. Crisis averted,” Ziglar says.

4.  Be a problem solver, not a problem spotter. Anyone can identify a problem. Leaders solve the problem. Non-leaders are quick to point out problems but slow to work at solutions. Here is a humorous example taken from registration sheets and comment cards returned to staff at the Bridger Wilderness Area in Wyoming:

  • Trails need to be reconstructed. Please avoid building trails that go uphill.
  • Too many bugs and leeches and spiders and spider webs. Please spray the wilderness to rid the area of these pests.
  • Please pave the trails so they can be plowed of snow during the winter.
  • Chairlifts need to be in some places so that we can get to wonderful views without having to hike to them.
  • The coyotes made too much noise last night and kept me awake. Please eradicate these annoying animals.
  • A small deer came into my camp and stole my jar of pickles. Is there a way I can get reimbursed?
  • Escalators would help on steep hill sections.
  • Too many rocks in the mountains.

5.  Operate on the elevator principle. In all of our relationships we can function in one of two ways: We can lift people up or we can take people down. Strong leaders add value to other people; poor leaders take value away. Here’s an example from the life of highly revered Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik. During the early 20th century, a horrific fire broke out in the Russian town of Brisk. Many homes were completely destroyed. Hard hit were shacks belonging to the poor. Although the Rabbi’s home was not damaged, he slept that night in the synagogue with the many others who lost their homes. When the town’s citizens asked him why he was doing so, he told them he would continue sleeping in the synagogue “until everyone has a roof over his head. If I remain in my own house, who knows how long it will take the community to raise the necessary funds to rebuild the homes of all the poor, the widows and the orphans? But if it is known that I too will sleep here until the work is completed, the fundraising will go much faster.” Finally, when the last house was rebuilt, Rabbi Chaim returned to his own home.

6.  Never settle for average. People who lead commit fully and, in the process, release immense amounts of energy, enthusiasm and creativity. Whatever you do, do it with total commitment. Consider this wisdom from Brian Souza in his book Become Who You Were Born to Be: “Sometimes a half looks pretty good. Half a chance is better than no chance at all. Half a dollar certainly beats a dime! But in the things that really matter in life, half just isn’t enough. Half a plan, half an ethical standard, half a commitment – they’re worth absolutely nothing. Try this: ‘Hey sweetie, I love you half the time’ and see how that goes over!” Souza strongly advises, “If we ever hope to get anywhere in this world, there’s only one way: Give it everything we’ve got.”

7.  Have a beginner’s mind. In the beginner’s mind there are endless possibilities. In the expert’s mind there are very few options. Leadership authority Warren Bennis stresses the importance of having an open, inquisitive approach: “Openness means being able to listen to ideas that are outside one’s current mental models, being able to suspend judgment until after one has heard someone else’s ideas. An open leader listens to their people without trying to shut them down early, which at least demonstrates care and builds trust. Openness also treats other ideas as potentially better than one’s own ideas. In the uncertain world of new territory, being able to openly consider alternatives is an important skill.”

8.  Make the world better for others. Do this by being a generous giver of time, talent and money. Giving is a crucial component of effective leadership. In his book You Don’t Need A Title To Be A Leader, Mark Sanborn tells of standing in the checkout line at a bookstore. In front of him was a group of inner-city schoolchildren who were touring the store. To encourage greater reading habits, the store gave each child a gift certificate to use toward buying books. The little girl directly in front of Sanborn arrived at the counter with three books she hoped to buy with her certificate. When the cashier totaled the amount, it turned out the young woman’s certificate would not cover all three. She set one aside but the second tally revealed the two remaining books were still over the certificate value. By now, people in line behind Sanborn were becoming impatient; the cashier was feeling their impatience; and the little girl appeared ready to give up trying to buy any books.

Acting on impulse, Sanborn reached into his pocket, offering to pay for the three books. The little girl, overwhelmed by his generosity, glanced up shyly, muttering “Thank you.” The woman behind Sanborn was more expressive, throwing her arms around him and hugging him. “You’ve restored my faith in human nature!” she exclaimed.

Of that incident, Sanborn writes: “When you make the world better for others, you make the world better for yourself. For the 20-odd years I’ve worked in leadership development, I’ve observed that giving – being of service – can be the most overlooked aspect of leadership, whatever your title. Usually, when we think of leadership we think of performance, effectiveness and results. But those critical aspects of leadership shine all the more brightly when they coexist with giving, service and contribution.” 

Victor Parachin is a freelance writer living in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Reach him at vmp5@cox.net.