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The Legendary #44 - a Leadership Example for Us AllIf you’re an SU alumni (or sports fan!), the number 44 holds great significance.  This weekend I watched The Express: a movie based on the life of Ernie Davis, the first African-American Heisman trophy winner – also a former SU football player.

To understand my excitement about watching this movie, you need to know a couple things.  First, I’m quick to express my support for my alma mater.  Those close to me know my penchant for the Orange.  Second, 44 isn’t just significant to me – it’s a bit of a legend  on the Hill.  Many football greats have worn that jersey at Syracuse, and we have a slight obsession with the number.  Campus phone numbers start with the number 44, a bar is named 44’s, the zip code is 13244…like I said, slight obsession.

Now that I’ve laid my bias out on the table, here’s my point:  this movie has great messages about leadership that even non-SU devotees should heed.

Leaders never stop learning.  Coach Schwartzwalder had respect for Davis’ skills on the football field, and he constantly pushed him to be a better player.  Davis learned a lot from him.  But Schwartzwalder didn’t respect Davis once they were off the field.  Instead, he continued to operate within the race-based mindset that was common for the time, and that he was comfortable with.  Playing football in the south in the late 1950s couldn’t have been easy for a Black man like Davis.  Without Schwartzwalder’s support, it must have been even more difficult.  However, as Davis grew more confident in the leadership role he was taking on, he started to assert himself – he demanded that Schwartzwalder rethink his race-based mindset and show him the same support the White football players saw.  Over time, Schwartzwalder saw that Davis was standing up for what was right and that he needed a friend in his corner.  Schwartzwalder may have been in the formal leadership position, but he wasn’t perfect.  Davis helped him learn to challenge his previous thinking (and the popular thinking of that time period). 

In our companies, we come across hardships and obstacles all the time.  Do we get support from our leaders?  Think about the difference it makes when someone’s in your corner.  The best relationships are those where you both learn from each other.

Sometimes you’re a leader without ever knowing it.  Davis didn’t know he was a role model.  He just thought he was doing what he loved: playing football.  It took his family telling him to stop and look around at the support from the Black community before Davis realized it.  Here was a Black man, not only playing football on a predominately White team, but excelling!  Davis only had to look into the crowds to see the admiration and respect people had for him.  In one scene in the movie, the team bus is driving to a game and another bus full of Black fans drives by, with “Go Ernie” signs against the windows.  Davis wasn’t just playing football.  He was becoming a civil rights leader.

You don’t have to be in a formal leadership position to be a leader.  You just have to take a stand for something that you believe in.  Davis was respected because he believed in equality and refused to settle for anything less.  Leaders lead because they don’t know how to look away from something they’re passionate about.

Leadership is a tough journey, and you never know where it will take you.  Davis knew he loved to run.  He just thought he was running away from something.  Turns out he was running toward his destiny as not only a great football player, but a great activist.  Davis didn’t know that running would take him all the way to the Division I football and the NFL draft.  He dreamed of winning the Heisman Trophy one day – it didn’t matter that all the previous Heisman winners had been White men.  He was determined to be the best he could be.  Davis experienced a lot of discrimination along the way, but because of his actions he broke the color barrier with the Heisman trophy.  He wasn’t posthumously inducted into the Hall of Fame solely for his football prowess – it was as much for the journey he took as for his accomplishments.

Leadership doesn’t take us down a clear, unfettered path.  We become leaders because we step up to the challenges in front of us.  Part of leadership is leading into the uncertainty, despite not knowing what’s in front of us.

What other lessons does The Express teach us about leadership?  I’m sure we could learn more lessons from looking closely at some of the other characters in the movie.  For that matter, there are plenty of movies out there that inspire us on our leadership journeys.  As you’re exploring your own path to becoming a leader, what films have inspired you?

And if you haven’t seen it already…you need to add The Express to your Netflix list!


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Photo via Flickr user jbelluch

Photo via Flickr user jbelluch

The U.S. men’s soccer team victory against Spain last month brought back a flood of memories of my soccer-filled youth.  I had a really great coach who not only pushed us to get better but taught us a lot about the game itself.  In the course of thinking about what I’d learned from countless hours of ball drills and scrimmages, I realized that he also taught me how to be a successful leader.  My coach shouted a lot of pointers from the sidelines but three tips stand out the most.

Keep your eye on the ball.  There was always at least one player on the opposing team who had a lot of ball skills.  Her feet moved insanely fast and she’d be the one who moved the ball down the field, distributing it to others.  My coach constantly reminded us to watch the ball, rather than the person’s feet.  It’s the ball you’re after, not the feet.  In corporations, we get distracted by all the fancy moves – the “flavor of the month” if you will.  It’s important for leaders to understand their values, the company’s values, and their employee’s values and not get distracted by the new management technique on the best seller’s list.  Keep your eye on your values, and remember the principles.  A new technology or winning method will only work if it is aligned with your values and done for the right reasons.  Or else that fake to the left will leave you staring at the grass while the ball moves on by.

Take advantage of the double-team.  Sometimes it makes sense for two teammates to go after the ball together.  It’s the same principle as a breakaway with two forwards versus one defender: you have the advantage.  Leaders can’t be afraid to ask for help.  Just because you’re a leader doesn’t mean that you need to go it alone.  Leaders need mentors, too!  Sometimes it makes sense for you to team up with another leader in order to become a stronger unit for your employees.  Find someone with a strength to match your weakness, or with a weakness that can be bolstered by your strengths.  You can learn a lot from your contemporaries and you can get a lot of help from other organizations such as HR.  That’s why we hear the analogy of a team used a lot in corporations – the leadership team needs to act together when necessary and be comfortable with the double-team.   

Pass the ball to a space.  On breakaways, we were taught to pass the ball to the corner of the field, so that the forward could run to it.  If the ball was passed to her feet, she wouldn’t have been able to take advantage of momentum as she made her way toward the goal.  Leaders need to remember this when they’re giving assignments to their team.  Instead of handing off another assignment that is at their current skill level, consider giving them an assignment that will cause them to stretch – to move to a new spot that they weren’t in before and take advantage of the momentum from your “pass”.  This is how you help them grow and become better versions of themselves.  This is also how you keep them actively learning and actively engaged.  There’s a fine line here, though – if you pass the ball too far ahead they’re not going to be able to get there in time and will fail.  

Soccer taught me a lot about successful leadership – and I’m sure that we’ve all had life experiences that have shown us how to become better at what we do.  Do you have a sports experience that you think about as inspiration or use for guidance when you’re trying to figure something out?  What other lessons can we learn from the sports we played as kids?

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Photo via smartypants

Photo via smartypants

I hear it all the time at work: “I’m not that creative” or “let’s find some creative people for the team.”  Why is creativity considered an elite skill?  Who says we all can’t be creative?  In reality, we all need to be creative, especially as leaders.  Granted, whether we’re born creative or not is an old debate.  But that’s not my point – I’m assuming we’re all born creative; my argument is that as leaders, we need to learn how to tap into that creativity. 

It is possible to access our creative tendencies.  Consider the experience of Jill Bolte Taylor, a neuroanatomist who suffered a massive stroke on the left side of her brain.  Here was a woman whose whole career focused on using the logical and rational left brain.  During her recovery, she realized that using the right side of her brain caused a “euphoric” experience and a great sense of peace.  So she taught herself to silence the “chatter” of her left brain and utilize the creative, intuitive right side of her brain more.

In organizations, we are constantly up against chatter.  There is corporate culture, precedent, policy and a whole lot of long-timers who like it the way it has always been.  There are employees scared to death of change, ready to dig their heels in at any suggestion of difference.  And there’s the little voice in our own heads, worried that our idea will never work.

I think Sam Harrison (@zingzone) has an excellent solution for this chatter.  At a session on creative marketing at the 2009 IABC conference in San Francisco he encouraged us all to get out of our “velvet rut.”  I love the imagery that phrase evokes because it explains it all: when we’re comfortable, we’re not being creative.  We should be worried when our leaders are comfortable because it means they’re stagnant.  Sam suggested we see different things and see things differently.  Think about that for a moment:  not only should leaders seek out new experiences to learn from, but they should also try to look at what they already know from a different angle.

Dr. Michael Lieberman Carey, a professor in Gonzaga University’s Organizational Leadership program, calls this “seeing and seeing again.”  For leaders, creativity doesn’t have to be a measure of how artistic we are.  Instead, creativity should be how well we can see the situation – and then see it again, differently. 

We can’t be good leaders without using our imagination.  Our imagination encourages us to view our organizations as living, growing and changing organisms rather than structured machines.  Our imagination pushes us head over heels outside the box, to an unfamiliar yet completely necessary creative space.  When we truly tap into our imagination, we’re pulling energy from the very inside of our selves and from the very center of human nature.  Imagination is the ingredient we need to get out of ruts, to grow, and to push our organizations (and our people/selves) to better and better levels.

Creativity, imagination and leadership are so incredibly intertwined…I know I’m just scratching the surface.  This probably isn’t the last you’ll hear of my thoughts on the subject.  But hopefully I’ve given you a little nudge to stop and think about what creativity and imagination means for you as a leader.

What are you doing to ensure you never get stuck in that velvet rut?

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I thought it only appropriate that my first “real” blog entry be on Father’s Day. Often our parents are the first role models we have for leadership. Good our bad, our leadership styles are shaped by our parents’. In fact, I argue that the most important role of a parent is to be a servant-leader for his children. Larry Spears wrote about ten characteristics of a servant-leader, all of which can be extrapolated to influence how we look at parenting. In honor of Father’s Day, I want to focus on three of those characteristics as they relate to my own father.

Parents and servant-leaders need to be good listeners. A lot of my childhood memories involve leaning against the doorway in my father’s home office, talking to him about what I was learning in science or how we had a particularly difficult sprinting practice in track and field. What I remember most is my rambling and his attentive and intent listening to what I had to say. I don’t know that I was saying anything too earth-shattering or interesting, but to my father it was important because it helped him get to know my perspectives and interests. Servant-leaders are great listeners not only because they’re committed to listening but because they are attentive. Larry Spears said that they “listen receptively to what is being said (and not said!)” and seek to clarify the will of a group. How often do we really listen to others? Do we really seek to understand them or are we merely hearing their words, waiting for the pause to insert our own?

Parents and servant-leaders need to be committed to the growth of people. My father always pushed me to become a better person and set the bar higher with each victory. I played soccer when I was younger; my father was an active cheerleader throughout that time. After each soccer game we would be in the car, talking about the game and what I had done – as well as what I could focus on next time to get better. Granted, I wasn’t always very receptive of this advice, but I internalized it and worked harder to be my own version of Mia Hamm. This push to be better was not because my father was disappointed in my performance; on the contrary, it was because he saw what I could become and was intent on helping me get there. He saw what I couldn’t yet see. In organizations, sometimes our leaders ask us to take on roles we’re not really interested in. But often we learn a little bit more about ourselves from those assignments. As leaders ourselves, we need to make sure we’re listening to our employees and really peeling back the layers of the onion to see who they truly are. It’s our responsibility as leaders to help our employees grow. Robert Greenleaf (link), the leader who coined the term servant-leadership, said that the best test of servant leadership is whether or not those served grow as people. Are we helping others become better versions of themselves? Or are we putting them in roles that will benefit us more than them?

Parents and servant-leaders must build community. To me, this means having a focus on family. One of my strongest personal values is the importance of family; I inherited that from both of my parents. My father came from a big family and I was (still am!) lucky enough to have many opportunities to interact with others who were like me and unlike me. My father modeled the importance of community to me by the way he interacted with and respected his family. He helped his parents with the farm chores when we visited, he encouraged imagination and creativity with his nieces and nephews by building hay forts in the barn, and he took great joy in teasing others (no taking yourself too seriously around him!). This same kind of community needs to be present in organizations. Servant-leaders need to build camaraderie with their employees by encouraging laughter, imagination and selflessness. What is it that all these very different people have in common? May it be a shared vision, goal or value, it is the job of the servant-leader to find that common thread and show the way toward collaboration and community. How well do you build community with your work groups? What about outside of work?

So to all the dads out there, happy father’s day. And to all the leaders – look to your father’s example to see how you can become a better leader! There’s a lot we can learn about leadership from parenting – what has your father taught you about leading?

Reference: Spears, L.C. (2003). Introduction: Understanding the growing impact of servant-leadership. In Beazley, H., Beggs, J. & Spears, L.C. (Eds.), The servant-leader within: A transformative path. (pp.13-27). Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press.

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Image via Flickr user distant_camera

Image via Flickr user distant_camera

To blog or not to blog? I’ve been holding off for a while now, just listening in on the conversations and trying to figure out what I could contribute that would be valuable to others. And then it hit me: I have found very few blogs focusing on organizational leadership, or more specifically, focusing on it in a manner that encourages true dialogue about it.

I’m defining dialogue here based on Brazilian educator Paulo Freire’s philosophical views:

If it is in speaking their word that people, by naming the world, transform it, dialogue imposes itself as the way by which they achieve significance as human beings…dialogue is an encounter among women and men who name the world.

Freire believed that dialogue both required and generated critical thinking, which I can attest to as a current part-time graduate student at Gonzaga University. I’ve been having truly thought-provoking conversations about all aspects of organizational leadership. Sometimes we focus on servant-leadership and other times we bring our various backgrounds to bear on leadership as a whole. But the dialogue is always diverse, respectful and boundary-pushing. And it is through that that my world view and the views of my classmates are shaped.

I’m halfway through that master’s program and have started to realize that there is a void of opportunities out there for the encouragement of true dialogue. Which brings me back to my question: to blog or not to blog? I decided that it was time to join the conversation and be a starting point for some critical discussions on leadership. And I’m psyched to contribute.

I’m new to the blogosphere, so please bear with me as I learn on the fly and tweak the content and layout of my blog to reflect my growth. You’ll probably notice a strong undercurrent of communications in my language – that’s because it’s a big part of who I am and how I see the world. And it’s a definite element of leadership.

This blog will focus on my personal path as I explore and learn more about what leadership means to me. I want to share my observations, experiences and thoughts. But I don’t want this to be a flat document; I’m looking for a genuine exchange with others. My view is only a partial view, so I look forward to learning from others as they react to my words and reshape the conversation with their own perspectives. In fact, I need to learn from others, or I won’t be able to grow from where I am now. This is a continual journey for me (for all of us, really!).

So, will you join my conversation?

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