I often hear executives remark, “that person has innate leadership skills.” And they could be right – inspirational leaders are all around us…those rare individuals whose presence completely captives a studio, a nation, or a particular quest. People like Oprah, Bill Clinton, or Elon Musk come to mind. We can strive to replicate their strengths, but the reality is, “own the room like Bill Clinton” is not a very transferrable skill.
I’ve taken a lot of notes about great leadership, mental notes at least, throughout my life –
during my athletics experiences which continued through college and throughout my 13+ years as a consultant. I have found there are numerous behaviors any good leader can replicate to elevate their effectiveness and help them inspire and lead change … behaviors that weren’t taught in business school but probably should’ve been.
In order to drive change through individuals, you have to put yourself in their shoes – connecting with their perspective, not yours.
I saw the benefits of having this perspective as a college athlete. During my sophomore year, my track coach, Fred LaPlante, called me into his office to say I wasn’t going to be on the 4×100 meter relay team. I wasn’t exactly in the running for an individual Big Ten title in the sprint events, so the relays were really important to me. Being on the relay team was my way of contributing to the team’s success and maybe getting to the medal stand at Big Tens or Nationals. After he informed me of his decision, he immediately followed with a story about his vision for how the year could play out for me. He said that there was still an opportunity and that my perseverance and hard work could actually help me land me a spot on the relay team after all. He closed by saying he believed in me, and was confident this would become a reality. And guess what? About two weeks later I became a member of our sprint relay team. I’ve never been so committed or worked so hard on the track than I did that year.
What was the difference? It was the story that Fred shared about what was possible. He knew how deflated I would feel – because he had put himself in my shoes – and so he knew how to counteract my reaction. By letting me know he believed in me, he made it personal. And when I started to dog it in practice, he reminded me of it.
I’ve facilitated hundreds of leadership offsite meetings in my time at Root. In the early years, I’d often dive right into a session with nothing more than a quick rundown of what we wanted to accomplish and passing out of an agenda. One day, after the typical “here’s what we are going to do kick off,” my boss pulled me aside and sarcastically said, “Way to inspire the room.” My initial reaction was, “thanks, jerk,” but that night after dinner he sent me a note that included 30+ stories I could use to help set the tone for future meetings. For example, when working with a client who needs to anticipate and seize an opportunity before others do, I might tell the story of Dick Fosbery – the Olympic athlete who reinvented how jumpers approach the high jump. He saw an opportunity, tried it, perfected it and ultimately changed the sport forever. The selective use of these stories has changed the quality of the experience and the outcomes for my clients. Sometimes, telling a brief story at the top of a meeting, or an analogy in the midst of a discussion, is all that is needed to set context for what we are trying to achieve.
Great leaders know that having a solid framework – one that tells the story of where we are now, where we are headed and how we’ll get there – can be incredibly powerful in driving transformational change. They believe in consistency – repeating the same words, phrases, and stories. From 2008 through 2010, I had the opportunity to work with Keith Allman, the President of Delta Faucet Company. At this time, Delta had fallen behind the competition and needed to transform as a company. Keith outlined a simple journey: Get Better Before We Get Bigger, Develop New Ways to Compete, and Launch New Growth Engines.
This journey became the framework for a narrative that he and other leaders shared with the organization for the next few years. The storyline was literally used thousands and thousands of time and no Town Hall style gathering or leadership meeting occurred without a reference to this journey. The consistency and repetition helped employees understand where they were in that journey, their specific role, and what was possible as Delta ascended to new heights. The energy inside the organization was palpable and the results spoke for themselves as Delta took back the leadership position in the U.S. faucet industry.
It might be impossible to duplicate the compelling and downright captivating inherent nature of leaders such as Oprah Winfrey or Elon Musk. But making it personal, setting context through stories, and using a consistent and compelling framework, are three easily replicable behaviors for leaders of any level to use to inspire change. So the next time you go into a meeting with a team member, a client, or even an entire organization, think about how you can use these methods to convey meaning, motivate, and help others reach new heights.