Google “Leadership” and you will be faced with sorting through 824,000,000 entries; you can make it more manageable by narrowing your search to “news” and then have a just 3% of the entries to navigate at 27,900,00. It’s a bit daunting. This morning, the search results are force-ranked with too many stories about the US government…I’ll just leave that here.
Leadership, or the capacity to lead, is as much about position as it is about competence to direct operations. Ultimately, people choose to be led by leaders, even when they don’t have a choice; we are only as good as the people who willingly choose to join us in the path to the destination we have set.
I center much of my work around understanding and helping other “older” people understand millennials, around the realization that millennials, in general, rightly believe anyone can lead from any position in the boat, and that rotating the leadership role is not only sensible but, mandatory. In a world flattened by technology and the access and power it brings to individuals, this notion is infinitely wise. And in this environment, the duty of leaders to know themselves is paramount; for it is in knowing ourselves that we are able to assemble teams, chart directions, and inspire progress towards a goal, efficiently and positively.
I’ve written before about how to run a business with “high input low democracy,” and I stand by it. That doesn’t mean that the leadership role on all things need sit on the ultimate leaders’ shoulders. It does mean that when leadership is well distributed, an organization needs strongly-held values that guide decision-making behavior and process. You can read more about that on my here and listen here.
Last week marked a personal milestone for me; my interview with John Lee Dumas for his popular Entrepreneur on Fire podcast aired! (This was my stretch goal for 2017 and since it was recorded in Q4, I’m going to count it.) In the lightning round JLD asks every guest “What was the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?” to which I answered “Know yourself best — know what you’re good at, what you’re bad at, what gets you excited, and what makes you bored and create the team around you that compliments that.” You can listen to that interview here.
And I Keep Learning This Leadership Lesson
And over the New Year holiday I was reminded again of how important it is to know yourself when reading John Hodgman’s Vacationland, which if you have not read, I highly recommend to you.
(If you don’t know John Hodgman, you will remember him as the PC in Apple’s “I’m a Mac” campaign from the 00s. Millennials you can view the whole campaign here — it’s brilliant. He is a former Daily Show correspondent and the host of one of my favorite podcasts, The Judge John Hodgman show, where he invoked “fake internet justice” on pairs of people in conflict. Mostly, it’s a show about “adulting” – I look forward to it every Wednesday.
Vacationland: True Stories from Painful Beaches (Vacationland is the license plate slogan for Maine) was my first book of 2018 (I’m determined to read all of the books gifted or bought in 2017 before I buy a new one this year…Amazon is going to wonder what happened to me). I can’t possibly do a better job reviewing the book than Jason Heller did for NPR, so I’ll let you read that here, and include his summary: “Sharp, silly, and sensitive, Vacationland is a literary selfie of a concerned citizen storyteller — one in which the oldest slice of the United States does a little inelegant photobombing.”
While, I’m not male or Gen-X, and cannot fathom having Hodgman’s incredible prose style which so beautifully leads the reader from story to story, threading scenes from his life and coming of middle age, I resonate strongly with his direct acknowledgment of his white environment and the privilege it yields, even though I can’t possibly really comprehend its benefits. And with his story about his mother, and her death from lung cancer which was a “traumatic, a moment that breaks your life in half.” When his mother was in her final decline, Hodgman left his work one Friday and went home to help his father take care of her. After her death, he did not return to his work as a literary agent but pursued what he wished for – to be a writer. He became a professional writer, and then a comedian, an actor, an author and podcast host. He did what he wanted to do because his mother’s death taught him that there is not time for everything later.
My company, Double Forte, exists because my mother was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer in 2002. I was in the midst of a job search with two awesome opportunities in front of me when the call came from my parents in Wisconsin. The next day I flew there and after meeting with the doctors pulled myself out of contention for those positions. I was going to be with my parents for this, and that meant I would either have to quit or I’d get fired if I took either position. Yet, I’m the breadwinner in our home, so not working was not an option. My friend and colleague twice over Dan Stevens and I got together, hatched a plan to like what we do, and created Double Forte, which is the music notation for very loud – there was two of us, we were really good at what we do, which is help other people get really loud for the people who matter to them…see how that works! And for the first four years of the company, I spent half of each year in Wisconsin – it was an incredible gift of time I will never regret.
And since that time, Double Forte has been an exercise in knowing myself and being increasingly comfortable in my own skin and with my own, pronounced and maybe not so well understood imperfections.
Knowing Myself: the good and the not-so-attractive
I’m best when I’m most valuable – in the pregame, kickoff and 4th and 1; I trust people more than I should; my eyes bulge out when I’m mad or when I’m thinking hard – which is unfortunate since I’m not mad often, but I do think often; I have a tendency to let my curiosity take over in meetings so I need to sit on my hands so that I don’t dominate the conversation; not everyone likes my sense of humor; I’m usually the fastest thinker in the room – I’m seldom the smartest person in the room; I have low tolerance for presiverating or flip-flopping; I can appear self-righteous, which is not that attractive; no one likes it when I have command of the facts they should have command of but don’t; I can be a bull in the china shop, although I’ve learned not to break as many things; an ever-developing sense of justice colors my decisions; I’m on the planet to help good people do great things; my gifts are optimism, vision and speed; and I struggle with the mundane.
This person – me – can only work well in a leadership position if surrounded by people who a) appreciate those truths, b) find humor in them, and c) complement them with their own gifts and strengths. And so the Jim Collins Bus Theory of finding the best people who complement and overlap each other is strong at Double Forte, which leads to our very low employee turnover rate.
For the past 7 years, each person who joins us does the Strength Finders and the MBTI assessments in the first week. Leadership also does the DiSC profile; soon we will add the Enneagram personality assessment. And they share their profiles with the entire team. We do this so each employee can know themselves better and so that their team can know them better too. (I am an ENFP, an 8, a high D and I with low S and C, with strategic, achiever, relator, activator, and arranger strengths if you care.)
Perhaps it’s a tall ask – but it’s required. Because when anyone can lead, everyone needs to know themselves well. What their strengths and growing edges are, where they are challenged, and undeservedly confident, who and what they need to succeed so that they can surround themselves with people who have complementary skills, experience, and tendencies in order to get the job done well.
Leadership belongs in every seat in the boat, but only when everyone pulling the oars knows themselves well enough so that other people choose to be led by them.