Why We Lead: Moments of Leadership That Matter
Being a leader is tough, and it's easy to lose sight of why we became leaders in the first place. Let these inspirational moments from leadership experts be a reminder of why we lead.
In this episode of the Leadership 480 podcast, we draw your attention to the most impactful leadership stories of our past speakers. We hope that hearing these leaders reflect on the pivotal moments in their career encourages you to do the same.
Why do we choose to lead? That's the big question I'm tackling today on the Leadership 480 Podcast. I'm your host, Beth Almes, and today's episode is a little bit different.
If you're like so many leaders right now, you might be up to your eyeballs in work worries, and there's probably a lot of pressure on you coming from all directions. You might even be thinking, "Was I crazy to sign up for this? Is the challenge really worth the paycheck?" Because the reality is leadership is tough. Really, really tough. So why do we do it?
In this episode, we are going to explore the why behind leadership through some of the amazing stories that our guests on the podcast have shared with us. These stories highlight the deeply human side of leadership and how a single moment can change someone's life. So, grab a cup of coffee and settle in with me for the next 20 minutes or so to connect with what really matters about leadership and renew your own commitment to being a great leader.
The first story I want to share with you is one that has stuck with me ever since I did the interview more than a year ago. I was talking with Tanveer Naseer, who's known for his TED Talk on forgetting passion, purpose is the real spice of life. Now, Tanveer isn't a fan of the popular advice that the way to find joy at work is to follow your passion. Rather, he argues that having purpose at work is what's going to make you feel good at the end of the day. He shared with me a powerful story about how a leader helped him to see that.
Yeah. This was an interesting job because it was a summer job working in the warehouse for a pharmaceutical dispensary. I mean, it was in the basement of the building. I mean, imagine I was a teenager spending my summers in a windowless basement. But even now all these years later, it was one of the best jobs I ever had. I never saw the light of day. I'd arrive there in the morning, I'd go downstairs into the basement, and I couldn't tell if it was raining or sunny outside.
Talk about a job that's not glamorous. It certainly wasn't very exciting. I mean, we were doing inventory, stocking shelves and so forth, lots of paperwork. This is also when we had the dial-up internet with that screeching sound. I had to endure a lot of that screeching sound as we would be sending out PO orders to the different vendors. Yet it turned out to be one of the most impactful jobs I ever had. Why? Because the leader I worked for, he made me appreciate the contribution I was making, of how I was making a difference.
If I wasn't there to make sure we had medications in inventory when these patients came to fill in their prescriptions, they wouldn't get the medication they'd need. They wouldn't be able to get the care that they required. It suddenly changes you from thinking, "Okay, I'm just trying to make sure we have X number of product on the shelf," to realizing this is impacting people's well-being. Again, it's really pivoting how we view what we do. It's amazing how even the most mundane jobs where we can think, because again, it's not glamorous, it's not exciting, "Well, this doesn't matter. Who really cares?"
I remember one example I'd read a number of years ago about a catheter manufacturing company where they had very low levels of employee engagement, and they had a leader come in and put it upon the organization's marketing team says, "I want you to collect our stories." They said, "What stories?" He said, "The stories of our patients. Patients who've benefited from using our product. How has it improved their lives? How has it made a difference? Has it reduced their pain? Has it made their lives more manageable? Share their stories, get their pictures." They did, and they thought, "okay, we're going to use this as marketing copy to sell to out to doctors to use our product."
No, instead he took all that stuff, and he plastered them all along the lobby walls of the building so when his employees would walk in, they would see these stories and they'd see the faces of these patients. Then he would tell them, "Every time you walk through, these are the people you're helping through the work you're doing. These are people whose lives are better because of you." Then he would actually change the pictures over time just to get people to not look at them for the first few weeks and then after a while they tune them out. Kind of like those values boards people put up in companies where we say, these are our values. No one reads it, right? People couldn't even tell you what it says on there.
They would actually change them after a point just to keep it front of mind. This is why we do what we do. It's amazing when you have a leader who's able to do that. The impact it creates on you is to make you realize that it doesn't matter what work I do, there is always an opportunity for me to contribute in a manner that matters. That's the impact he had on me, that to never think that it's the job that matters. It's really how you approach your job and what you're willing to contribute yourself that really makes the difference.
The next moment I'm going to share with you is about how powerful your words can be as a leader, even when it's just taking a moment to really acknowledge someone and show that you see them. Here's Katy Campbell, who is one of our leadership experts at DDI.
When I was new at DDI, I had to go to talk to someone who was a senior leader who I had a lot of respect for. I was pretty sure that they didn't know who I was, and why would they? I went and talked to this person, and I got some coaching, and he was reviewing some things that I had written. At the end of the meeting he said, "How do you like it here?" I said, "Oh, I like it very much." He said, "That's great because I've heard really good things about you, and I think you're going to do really well at DDI." I went from thinking, "Well, this guys never even heard of me. I'm just new. I'm just this low-level person." But that always stuck with me because what it said to me was, "Someone knows who I am and they think I'm doing a good job, obviously."
But it also was so powerful because that kind of encouragement, as small as it was, was huge to me. It just always let me know that positive reinforcement, maintaining or enhancing someone's self-esteem is always going to win. That's always going to be the right thing to do. It's a great way to spend your time is by encouraging people and letting them know that you've heard of them and that you're impressed by them. That's never going to be a bad choice. It stuck with me for...this leader has been gone now from DDI for a while, but I'll never forget him because that was just such a kind thing that I needed to hear at the time.
The next moment of leadership comes from Dr. Courtney McCluney, who, among other things, is a professor of organizational behavior at Cornell University. Courtney and I talked about the relationship between inclusion, wellness and performance and the fact that our very human needs don't always meet up with the very inhuman expectations of work. But her story is one in which a great leader recognized that and showed her how taking a moment to step back can really be what catapults you forward.
I'm thinking about someone who was a leader in my life when I was in my doctoral program, my advisor, Dr. Jacqueline Mattis. I don't know if anyone's done a PhD program, but it is a very stressful experience, one in which you question your entire existence and whether or not you can actually do this. There's a lot of stress built into it. One of the things that she modeled so beautifully as the leader of our research lab and advising doctoral students was again, showing yourself a lot of grace, but also normalizing taking breaks when things aren't working.
I have a vivid example of working inside of her retreat space that her sister founded in New Jersey. She invited me to come there to write my dissertation. It was a little, even though it was meant to be relaxing, it was a little stressful. She was right down the hall. So, if I'm ever not working, she could just kind of show up and say, "Hey, what's going on?" But one of the things that she did in that space, she saw me getting visibly upset, and it actually transformed from psychological distress to physical distress. I started to feel sick, and she forced me to stop working. Her sister made me this amazing soup and tea, and they forced me to go to bed.
People might not think of that as leadership, actually encouraging someone to step away from work. But I think a great leader knows when it is that their employees have, before they might even get to burnout, you've got to be able to see those signs or to at least understand that this is a lot that you are putting on yourself and that I might be putting on you. So again, I have control over, for me, when I turned in that dissertation. For other people, it could be, "We told the client we'd get back to them this date." I have control over that. Let me adjust so that way my employees aren't burning out.
It not only made me trust her more in terms of I believe that she has my best interest at heart, that she's not merely concerned about the work itself, but she's also concerned about me as a person and wants me to be whole and happy as I'm doing this work, not regretting it and dreading it and the work itself being associated with all these negative things. I felt so refreshed that next day. I may or may not have had to vomit, but I felt really great afterwards. Then it was so easy for me to say, as you were saying before, "Hey, this is not working," or "I think I need a break." Being able to voice those concerns and her being able to ask me because she observed it before, "Where are you feeling this distress? What aspect of this work is causing your distress? How can I help you work through it?"
That is the type of leader that I aspire to be is someone who can acknowledge the humanity of people who I'm working with or possibly supervising and to encourage them to do something that may seem counter to what my role is as their manager. Actually step away from work for a second and take that break. I would love to see more managers do that. I think you would have happier workers, more fulfilled workers and people who at the end of the day trust you. People don't leave companies when they trust their managers.
The next moment of leadership comes to us from a surprising place, a high dive platform. Bill Treasurer, founder of Giant Leap Consulting, shared a moment of leadership that changed his life that didn't come from above, but from some courageous feedback from someone on his team.
I was a member of the US High Diving Team, and I used to dive off of 100-foot platforms into small pools for a living going at 50 miles an hour at a lot of amusement parks throughout the country. I became the captain of the team, which meant that I got to lead this troop of athletes. All of these athletes were away from home, entertaining audiences of 2,000 upwards to sometimes of 40,000 people. But I didn't know who I was as a leader. As I was in the act of leading these divers, I was heavy-handed, and I had a short fuse, and I was over-controlling.
One day, one of the older divers took me aside...and this was an aquatic entertainment production...it was a multimillion-dollar production done in front of live audiences. Safety was a big concern, and entertaining these patrons was a big concern. I felt a lot of pressure, but I was heavy-handed. One of the divers one day took me aside and said, "Hey, listen, if you ever talk to us like that again, I'll walk. I don't need this job that badly to be treated poorly by you or anybody else." I got defensive. I was like, "Hey man, I'm your boss. Not the other way around." But as I thought about it that night over a few beverages, I thought, "He's right. I have no idea who I am as a leader."
I picked up a book. I picked up a book that you've heard of before. It's called The One Minute Manager by Dr. Ken Blanchard. That book did something inside of me, and I was like, "Wow, there's a different way of leading than adopting my own father's sort of leadership style." I had to develop my own leadership style, and here's a path. Then I picked up another book, and I came across the term organizational development. I was starting to get better at leading, but I was becoming very interested in the topic. I started reading a whole bunch of books on leadership, got fascinated with the topic, decided to put myself through graduate school, and I was on my way.
If you think about it, it all comes back to the courage that it took one of my direct reports to give me upward feedback and for me to get past the defensiveness and the excuse making and sit with the fact that he was right. It set me on the course of becoming interested in the topic of leadership. I think what, Beth, ultimately what it came down to was, yes, I got interested in how you help motivate and inspire other people and get good performance out of them, but I was becoming a better human being in the process. I think that that's what so attractive about leadership that while you're helping others become leaders themselves, you're holding yourself to a higher standard, elevating your own performance and you're getting better as a human.
Our next moment comes to us from Tyler Ludlow, who is an expert in decision science and the founder of the Decision Skills Institute. Tyler has spent his career applying science to leadership, but he might not have started down this path if a leader hadn't very artfully inspired him to make the choice to accomplish more.
My very first job after graduating with my MBA, I had kind of talked myself into a role in the IT organization in this very large global company. I didn't have a background in IT, but what they were wanting done, I felt like, "Well, I can do that. I can talk and translate and communicate and problem solve." They hired me, and my first boss in that space, I remember having a conversation with...her name is Debbie...I remember having a conversation with Debbie early on, and this is so silly and trivial, but she had given me a task...I forget what it was...it was related to design of some new computer system or something. She'd given me a task to do like, "Oh, you need to do this."
Then I remember she paused for a second and said something like, "If you want a real challenge, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah." She stated a bigger or more in-depth way that I could solve that. I don't know that she really knew what she was doing. She's a wonderful person. Maybe I should give her credit that she did know what she was doing. But what I heard as her employee was when she said, "Or, if you want a real challenge," I was like, "That's what I'm going to do. I'm not going to do the minimum. I'm going to try and do that," just as a turn of wanting to impress her or self-mastery or whatever. I went after it, and I did do the bigger thing, the better thing or whatever it was.
I was real excited to...I think I had maybe a weekly or a biweekly one-on-one with her or whatever...the next, I was like, "I'm going to show Debbie, and not only did I do the one, but I did the bigger version of it." I don't know that I have ingrained that perfectly in me, but I've thought about that before in terms of there's something to be said for being really clear about, "Okay, this is what I need done." Clear.
But to be able to present something as, "She gave me the choice of whether I wanted to seek after that bigger thing." I think it was more powerful and more meaningful because not only did I do that bigger work, but it was my choice to do it in that bigger way. She got a lot more out of me. Again, I don't know that that was exactly incredibly preconceived on her part. It just seemed very natural the way that it occurred.
One of the hardest parts of leadership centers on feedback. A lot of times we're reluctant to give it, especially when it's critical because we don't want to hurt someone's feelings or it's uncomfortable. It doesn't really feel great to be on the receiving end of critical feedback either. But in this leadership moment, Alex Schwall, who is the co-founder of Rhabit Analytics, shares how someone taking the time to give him critical feedback changed the trajectory of his career.
The situation was I was brand new out of grad school, and I think it was one of my first client gigs. I was there with a senior consultant. I was the junior consultant with a senior consultant visiting a client. I was brought in because I had a organizational psychology background. They wanted to talk about maybe a few more technical issues. I gave them my opinion. I presented, I summarized what I thought is the situation, but I was very vague. I kind of presented pros and cons, and I didn't really give them a clear solution of what they should be doing. They wanted a recommendation. I basically told him how complex the situation was. I probably used words that was ingrained in me from grad school to just explore the entire complexity of everything.
On the drive home from that client, this consultant... and I thought this meeting went well, super good...I thought it was perfect. On the drive back, the consultant gave me a lot of feedback on how what I did was not working. She kind of helped me understand this. The content of the feedback doesn't matter, but the fact that that person took the time to sit down with me and give me this information at all was I think absolutely critical for me. Without that, I would've just kept doing the same nonsense all over again, again, and again with clients thinking that I sound super smart and that what I'm doing is kind of helpful, which it was not. Getting that feedback from her was just absolutely critical. It set me up for success as a consultant.
As leaders, we have the tough job of trying to figure out what to communicate to our teams and when. Sometimes we can operate a little bit too much on a "need to know basis." But in this leadership moment, Alain Hunkins, author of Cracking the Leadership Code, shares a powerful moment in his personal life that changed how he decided to communicate as a leader.
It's interesting, because it's not a professional moment, it's a personal moment. This is kind of up for me lately. As you know, we had to reschedule the original recording of this podcast because my father passed away just a little over a couple of weeks ago. One of the things that my father was not particularly good at was communicating the big picture around the family. He was the "patriarch," and he was not necessarily good at communicating.
I'm thinking of a specific example. Once I remember talking with him, he had this wonderful Uncle Eddie who, and I was sitting with him, I must have been in my late 20s at the time, and I said to my dad, I said, "Hey, how is Uncle Eddie doing?" He said, "Oh, Uncle Eddie died two-and-a-half years ago. I said, "He did?" He said, "Yeah. You didn't know?" I thought, "You never told me." How would I know these things? It was one of these moments because as my father was transitioning and he's been sick and ill from Parkinson's disease for quite some time, that moment stuck with me. I thought, "Who needs to know this? Who needs to know that this is going on?"
I think just in general, that mindset of when there's something important going on, and it can be professional, anything in your life...when there's something important going on, thinking and being inclusive. Who else needs to know this? Or who would like to be included in knowing this? I reached out to cousins around the world, I reached out to friends. I said, "Just letting you know," this is just before my dad passed, I said, "Paul's in hospice. He's not going to be here much longer. I'm letting you know this with zero expectation that you need to either do or not do anything. I just wanted to include you because I thought you'd like to know, and I love you."
Just that mindset of...I think so often when...I just think back to that moment I had, "You didn't tell me," I felt really excluded in that way and that I didn't feel a part of. One of the things that we see with leadership and teams is that people want to feel belonging. That sense...if you look at diversity, equity, inclusion, we want this sense of belonging. Something that I've really strived towards is, and that moment taught me a lot, was how can I make sure that I'm including people throughout things. In any moment, a general little question I always ask, "Who else would like to know this?" Or "Who needs to know what I know?" Because it's so easy for us in our busy lives, especially as leaders, just to kind of plow away, and we mean well. We want to get stuff done, but we might be leaving people on the side of the road.
The last moment I'll share with you is one that I hope gives you a laugh, but it's really a reminder that you will not be perfect. I had chatted with Andrew Gill, one of our leadership coaches at DDI about the challenges of mid-level leadership. He shared a funny yet really powerful story for leaders at any level about embracing your imperfections as a leader.
It's very easy to get caught up in your head about your own capability and success. And I remember I was an officer in the Australian army and I'd got my promotion to First Lieutenant. I'm walking down the road and people are looking at me and I'm feeling super good. I was kind of fit, and I felt I looked really good, and I was just confident in myself. I remember getting back to my car and I sat down, and my zipper was undone. Not only was my zipper undone, but my shirt tail was hanging out. That was for me, just a lesson in leadership around humility is that be careful to get caught up in your own propaganda and your own success. You'll get a lot of that, and you'll get a lot of nice people saying things, but take a step back, take a step of reality.
On both sides. Don't get overly critical. Don't get overly confident but be self-aware. Now when I coach people, particularly around self-awareness, it's those three things with self-awareness. One, as a mid-level leader, really know who you are. What are your strengths? What are your weaknesses in your personality? What enables you? What derails you? Work against you? Secondly, ask yourself, "How can I be okay with that?" A lot of mid-level leaders, a lot of leaders for that matter, if they're not comfortable with who they are, they get quite defensive about it and they won't change it. Be okay with that. How can you be okay with your weaknesses?
I'm a procrastinator. I know that's who I am. I've had to figure out how not to be a procrastinator, but I had to accept that was part of my personality. Once I did that, I could then do something about it. That leads to the third question. Figure out what you're going to do with what you know about yourself. Once you accept it, what are you going to do? How are you going to leverage your strengths? How are you going to manage your limitations and your weaknesses? Where are you going to gravitate to in terms of your career? If you're going to take risks, what does that mean for you? What do you need to do? If you can answer those three questions: who am I, how can I be okay with it, what do I do with it, it'll make your life a lot easier and a leader at any level.
I could have shared many more amazing leadership moments, but I know how busy you all are. For more, subscribe to the podcast on your favorite channel, and we'll keep on sharing more stories like this, plus practical strategies for better leadership.
My one reminder for all of you today is that leadership is about the moment. Almost every story I shared is about a moment of leadership that probably happened in a flash, but profoundly shaped a life and is remembered many years after the fact. You may not know this, but the reason we call this the Leadership 480 Podcast is because there are 480 minutes in an average eight-hour workday. And yes, I know that many of you pride yourself on putting in more hours, but the point is that when we focus on great moments of interaction and leadership, these small moments can have a dramatic impact on the way your team works, on the effectiveness of your leadership, and really on the lives of the people around you.
Why do we sign up for leadership among the sometimes crushing weight of responsibility and stress? It's because we have the opportunity to change lives and make an impact, maybe even in just one moment. Thanks for spending some of your 480 with us today, and remember to make every moment of leadership count.