Leaders are Readers
By Keith Bean
You’ve made it. Your hard work as an individual contributor has paid off. You’ve endured that miserable boss of yours for the past two years and upper management finally woke up and fired his worthless behind and put you in charge. Things are going to be so different around here! You’re bristling with energy and determination to take your team to the top, and can’t wait to get started.
Fast forward three months...you are miserable. Why? Despite your passion to win, your patience has worn thin. You’re starting to view your “team” as a collection of unappreciative, under-performing misfits and pressure from upper management has increased tenfold. Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss. This is not what you signed up for! If only you had a better team.
Sound familiar? Of course it does. This story plays out every day in countless organizations across the globe. Can it be fixed? Well, that depends on you.
My quest to learn more about leadership began as a young Marine leader. I was the lead actor in the scene above. I was the hard-charger who replaced the miserable boss and quickly discovered that it wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be.
Fortunately, I had an incredible Sergeant Major. Sergeant Major Warner was different than the other Sergeant’s Major I had encountered up to that point in my career. Yes, he was a poster Marine—immaculate in appearance and decorum, quite common in the senior enlisted ranks of the Marine Corps.
What made him different were two very specific things. He always had a book with him and he actually talked with me. Doesn’t sound like much, right? Big deal, he liked books and talked to people. Let me tell you how those two aspects profoundly changed my life.
I had been extremely successful as an individual contributor in the super challenging arena of Marine Corps recruiting and was now in command of a team. (By the way, if you’re in sales, you haven’t sold anything until you’ve secured written parental consent from a 60’s era anti-military mom who loathes everything you stand for.)
I was in over my head. I was naïve enough to believe that being the boss would be easier. It was supposed to be the pay-off for all my hard work. All I had to do was “manage” the efforts of others and life would be great. What I didn’t fully consider was that I was now responsible to achieve a recruiting mission quadruple the size of what I was able to achieve by myself. It was the classic case of management promoting the top salesperson to a leadership role.
The result is predictable. Take any top producer off the floor and you’re going to take a hit in production. The goal, however, is hoping the star producer will replicate. One superstar could create many superstars. Seems like a perfectly sensible move to increase sales across the board.
Unfortunately, the move rarely pans out. The team doesn’t grow and the former superstar becomes less engaged as blame for the failed experiment heads his or her way. The blame however, should fall entirely on the shoulders of management. Leadership is an entirely different skill set. Your superstar needs the same level of mentoring, guidance, and support, that any new hire should receive in a complex role. Do this, and the pay-off will be huge. You’ll get the replication you’re looking for.
The Sergeant Major understood this. He didn’t push or threaten me. It requires ZERO talent to threaten or tell someone to work harder, get motivated, or fix it. Instead, he spoke with me. We had an actual conversation and I knew he truly wanted me to succeed. Instead of presenting a false front of feigned confidence, I opened up. What followed was a remarkable experience of a true mentor helping a junior Marine. In the diagram above, the Sergeant Major exemplified all dimensions of an impactful leader and mentor.
I had zero doubt where he was coming from. He was clearly a man of great character and was there to help and guide. My fear of failure was gone. I knew he had my back and I was all-in for what he could he teach me. Your troops will never follow you if you’re a selfish, fair-weather leader with weak core values. You may get compliance but you’ll never earn their loyalty and commitment. Rock solid values are the nucleus of leadership and resilient organizations.
His influence was always “can-do” and supportive. He didn’t use his rank as a bludgeon. Despite the super intense, mission-focused environment, he was calm, approachable and communicative. I was no longer paralyzed with doubt. In fact, I was inspired by the possibilities of becoming a better leader.
He knew how leadership behavior impacts mission accomplishment and quickly assessed what changes I needed to make. I embraced the feedback as well as the developmental conversations and guidance that followed. Solid values and motivation are contagious. They provide the fertile ground for growth and optimism as opposed to toxic leaders who breed compliance and cynicism.
You increase employee engagement by increasing leader engagement. Invest time with them and help them grow. Engaged employees embrace and value development. Adding a slushy machine and a ping-pong table may make you a “cool” company but it sure as hell isn’t going to elicit discretionary effort and growth.
Highly engaged employees are motivated by development and give discretionary effort back to the company. Long after they’ve left the building, they’re still thinking about solving problems. Keep this in mind the next time one of your employees says, “Hey boss, I was thinking about the (x) problem last night and I have an idea.” Whether it’s a great idea or not, it’s a gift—the gift of discretionary effort. This is one of the clearest indicators that your employee cares and wants to contribute. Bad ideas present opportunities for development. Good ideas present opportunities to develop confidence. Both are a "win."
His understanding of the situation was unquestionable. He knew the correct course to chart and appropriate speed to move forward. This wasn’t about numbers—numbers are a symptom. This was about the people who produce the numbers and more precisely, me; the guy who is responsible for the people. Work with your people and the numbers will follow. Most organizations have this backward. Their senior leaders sit in meetings and talk about numbers. After the meeting, they inform their middle managers that they’re not happy with the numbers and tell them to get it fixed. Then the middle managers emulate their upper managers and tell their troops to "get it fixed or else."
Successful leaders are great navigators. They have built-in radar and know exactly which course corrections are needed. More important, they know their ship and they know their crew. Gallup reports nearly 70% of employees feeling disengaged at work. What they should report is 70% of employees are poorly led.
Here’s the first thing you need to do to fix it and become a better navigator. Get off your rear end and engage the troops. Listen and talk with them. Eat with them. Get to know them. You’ll be ten times more effective at making course and speed decisions.
The coaching and development I received have been life-lasting. He didn’t make it easy either. I would share a challenge I was encountering and instead of a quick answer or “here’s what you need to do” advice, I was usually the recipient of a book. He knew that self-discovery was far more valuable to me and the organization than providing me with the answers to the test. So, I read—knowing and embracing that I would be accountable to my mentor to demonstrate what was learned. As a result, I have carried the mantra forward, “leaders are readers.”
Do you want your team to achieve better results? Do you want to take your team to the top? Do you want to be the kind of leader who makes such an impact you’re remembered thirty years later? Then stop winging it and commit to your own development. Stop waiting for leadership development to come to you. Most organizations don't have a Sergeant Major Warner. I was extremely lucky to have him—right time and place. You probably won't be so lucky. Take initiative and seek it on your own.
Sounds simple enough, right? Not so much. Before you begin your self-development quest, you need to answer one question. Are you ready? Remember the story of the arrogant student who seeks out the ancient, blind Zen master for more knowledge? The blind master offers the student tea and proceeds to pour until it overflows. The student tells the master, “It’s full now, you can stop pouring.” The master replies, “And that is why I cannot teach you Zen. Like this cup, you are too full of your own opinions and ideas of how things should be. I cannot teach you Zen until your cup is empty.”
You must first empty your leadership cup before you can grow as a leader. Take the concept of servant leadership for example. To truly embrace this extraordinary approach to leadership, you must first empty your cup of selfishness. To help others prosper, you must empty your cup of greed. To help others grow, you must empty your cup of arrogance. At the heart of the diagram is your cup. It’s entirely up to you as to which values you will allow in it. Choose wisely.
Once you are truly ready to learn, the teachers are ready. Query “books on leadership” on Amazon and it will generate thousands of results. If you are not sure where to start, try starting with Sinek, Maxwell, Covey, Carnegie, or Blanchard. Start there, that is, if your cup is ready for recommendations. A mentor will soon follow. Leaders are readers! Semper Fi!
Keith Bean is a value-centric leader with vast experience and proven track record of sales leadership, culture engineering, leadership development, and employee engagement. If you are interested in discussing contract work, or speaking engagements, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Keith resides in Clarkston, Michigan.