Leadership: Nature Or Nurture

Thursday, September 1, 2011 - 01:00

"The simplest definition of leadership: the ability to influence people."

- John Maxwell, international author on leadership

"When leaders stop learning, they should stop leading."

- Bill Hybels, the Willow Creek Global Leadership Summit

I am CEO of The General Counsel Forum, an association of chief legal officers and managing counsel committed to developing in-house leaders. We want to share with the busy in-house counsel reading this publication a short list of leadership books our Forum members find inspiring.

My leadership studies began nearly 30 years ago with a book coauthored by Tom Peters entitled, In Search of Excellence . Most of us interested in the subject have regularly added numerous volumes to our bookshelves as we continue to improve our leadership skills. This interest in leadership is what brought me to the Forum in 2005 as its first CEO.

Many believe that leaders are born. The propensity to lead may indeed be innate in many of us, but the ability to lead successfully is a learned skill. Recognized leaders - local and world renowned - stand on the shoulders of mentors who have shown us how to lead, or have demonstrated the results of poor leadership.

Leaders often develop a passion for leadership when they are young, but not always with great results. My earliest memory as a leader was when I was about ten years old. I "led" a group of neighborhood boys up onto the roof of a local church. We got caught by a troop of Brownies meeting at the church - very humiliating and a fitting example of poor leadership. Like many of you, as a youth I had a passion for leadership, some ability, and a boxcar full of confidence, but my skills were much like a 12-year-old driving a station wagon in rush hour traffic: frightening to imagine, and very scary to watch. As the years went by, my experiences and mentors (authors and bosses) helped me identify weaknesses and grow as a leader.

The new or maturing leader likely enjoys leading because, as Lewis Grizzard said, "If you ain't the lead dog, the scenery never changes." If there is no sound sweeter than a man's own voice, there is nothing as energizing as seeing one's vision in action.

For many leaders today, the maturation into authentic leadership began by reading Jim Collins's book Good to Great . Jim makes it clear that at the core, genuine leadership combines professional will with personal humility. Professional will may be innate, but humility is without a doubt a learned skill that is never fully accomplished.

A wonderful example of a consummate professional with personal humility is Sir Edmund Hillary. In John Dickson's book, Humilitas , he tells a story about Sir Edmund, who was knighted for his successful climb of Mount Everest in 1953. In subsequent years, he received medals from New Zealand and Britain for his continued excellence as a climber and for helping build hospitals, airfields and schools in Nepal. On one of his many visits to the Himalayas, he was spotted by a group of climbers who asked to have their photo taken with the world famous climber. They handed him an ice pick and then gathered to pose for the picture. Just then, another climber was passing by the group, and not recognizing Sir Edmund, strode up to him and said, "That's not how you hold an ice pick. Let me show you." Everyone stood in amazement as Sir Edmund thanked the man, let him readjust the pick, and without another word, went on with the photo. It doesn't matter who or how accomplished he was; most of us are appalled at the arrogance of the other climber. On the other hand, most of us hold Sir Edmund in higher stead for his graciousness and his humility. As Dickson observes, "The most influential and inspiring people are often marked by humility."

John also points to four basic leadership tools that should be familiar to all leaders: ability, authority, character and persuasion. The least of these is authority, and this is great news for junior leaders. They don't have to wait until they have a title to begin leading. History teaches us that some of the most recognized leaders had no authority, yet they changed communities, companies and even countries. Mahatma Gandhi has the most currency among this group of leaders - he had no authority, formal organization or funds, yet he changed the course of India. As many of us probably understand, the more a leader uses the tool of authority, the less effective the other three tools are in the eyes of those being led. In contrast, the more a leader uses ability, good character and persuasion in a balanced approach, the more the need for authority atrophies.

Cory Booker is the subject of an Academy Award-nominated documentary, "Street Fight," which covers his turbulent campaign to become the mayor of Newark, New Jersey at the age of 32. Booker says that who we are speaks so loudly that others can't hear what we are saying. Inexperienced leaders, and those who depend on their authority to effect change, may say they have an open-door policy, or want collaboration and transparency, but their actions may not be in alignment with their words. Sustainable leadership is best served up on a plate of humility with generous portions of kind candor and sacrificial concern.

Granted, September may seem like an odd time to suggest a reading list. Newspapers and magazines normally publish reading lists around Memorial Day so that vacationers can pack up some good books to read while they are sitting on the beach, by the lake, or around the pool. But boning up on leadership is not something the successful leader does on holidays and vacations. The nature of leadership is a 24/7/365 endeavor. It is a worldview, if you will, that manifests itself in every action of a leader. Successful leaders are learning with every conversation, every movie and podcast, and an unending reading list. When leaders stop learning, they should stop leading.

The Forum's mission is centered on peer-to-peer knowledge exchange about legal best practices, of which leadership is inextricably connected. The books previously mentioned and listed below were suggested by several senior members in our organization. These men and women are some of the nation's thought leaders regarding legal best practices and leadership. If you are a seasoned leader, you will find many old, dog-eared friends on the list. If you are a new leader, understand that this is just the beginning of what should be a long and productive adventure in pursuing your leadership skills.

• The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (Stephen R. Covey) - Habit #1: be proactive (and Habits 2-7 will easily follow)

• The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership (John Maxwell) - combining personal development with effective team building

• Choosing to Cheat (Andy Stanley) - when there are not enough hours in the week - and there never are - cheat your employees rather than your family (really?)

• The Corner Office (Adam Bryant) - 73 CEOs opine about why one leader is more likely to succeed than another

• The Eighth Habit: From Effectiveness to Greatness (Stephen R. Covey) - acting with integrity and helping others do the same

• Emotional Intelligence (Daniel Golman) - even more than IQ, e-Intelligence will have more influence on your success in all walks of life

• The Five Dysfunctions of a Team (Patrick Lencioni) - a Maslovian-type pyramid for team building and what to avoid: absence of trust, fear of conflict, lack of commitment, avoidance of accountability, topped off by an inattention to results

• Getting Naked (Patrick Lencioni) - building loyal and sticky relationships with the people you serve through transparency and candor

• Good to Great (Jim Collins) - what is less interesting is the discussion about the companies; what is most interesting is the description and character of the Level 5 Leaders

• How: Why How We Do Anything Means Everythingin Business (and in Life) (Dov Seidman) - terrific advice for how to align your business or services with your clients

• How the Mighty Fall (Jim Collins) - a five-stage model about why companies fail

• Humilitas (John Dickson) - Humble people aren't necessarily great, and great people are not necessarily humble, but great people who are humble are the greatest

• In Search of Excellence (Tom Peters) - eight attributes that are common among the best companies

• Integrity (Henry Cloud) - six aspects of integrity that form the critical foundation for honesty and trustworthiness

• Joker One (Donovan Campbell) - leadership in the extreme and under fire

• The Leadership Challenge (James Kouzes & Barry Posner) - model the way, inspire a shared vision, challenge the process, enable others and encourage the heart

• Manager Tools podcasts (www.managertools.com)

• The One Minute Manager (Ken Blanchard) - developing others as leaders, not followers

• The Speed of Trust (Stephen M.R. Covey) - like fish to water, we don't recognize trust until it becomes polluted; without trust, every human system ultimately self-destructs

• Switch (Heath, Chip & Dan) - a three-part framework for leading change

• There is No Such Thing as Business Ethics (John Maxwell) - ethics are the same for all aspects of one's life, whether in business or personal life; ethics can't be compartmentalized

• Throwing the Elephant: Zen and the Art of Managing Up (Stanley Bing) - how to manage upward (your boss) in downsian fashion

• Tribes (Seth Godin) - "How was your day today? If your answer is 'fine,' then I don't think you were leading."

• The Trusted Advisor (David Maister) - don't attempt to be the smartest person in the room; strive to be the most helpful

This list is entirely too short to capture the depth and breadth of the discussion of leadership, and many important authors have been left out, including Edmund Deming, Peter Drucker, Warren Bennis, James MacGregor Burns, Jay Conger and Thomas Wren.

A few words for you who believe that you are not yet in a leadership position yet and can wait to learn about leading: you are wrong. Don't think that you can wait until you are chosen to lead, and then begin studying the science and art of leadership. If all skydivers had that attitude, there would be no old skydivers. One of the first leadership principles is to take ownership. As Seth Godin says, "Don't wait to be picked. Pick yourself!"

Lee M. Emery is the Chief Executive Officer of The General Counsel Forum - a closely knit community of about 400 general counsel and 175 senior managing counsel who gather in five city chapters for peer-to-peer exchange of legal best practices, including the discovery and sharing of leadership skills and tools. The organization is expanding nationally. To learn more about the Forum, visit www.tgcf.org.