Thursday, September 18, 2014

Leadership, Snakes and Chameleons

In my career as an executive in the retail food industry, I’ve led, and I’ve been led. I've come to appreciate that those who rise to the top, do so for a variety of reasons—they know the right person, they are in the right place at the right time, they have high IQ’s, they work hard physically, and some of all of the above. In my opinion, what defines a leader is ceaseless curiosity (backed, of course, by the passion and proficiency to execute on it), and a recognition that, like a snake shedding its skin, one must constantly learn to renew and revise.

Another thing I’ve noticed about leadership is that it requires risk-taking. It’s a long held maxim that in order to grow, we must learn to step outside our comfort zones and “give it a go.” You may win or you may lose, but in either case, you will learn a lesson. Failure may teach you as much, or more than success. But a true leader takes that risk. To allow the possibility of failure to hold you back can leave you stagnant.

The cliches are true—swim or sink, evolve or die—because they revolve around a stubborn fact: to succeed in business, as in life, you must never stop asking questions, but instead remain on your toes, peering around corners. And you must accept the idea that you don’t know it all¬¬—you never do. So you must have the inner drive, the intestinal fortitude to keep searching.

Self-awareness is also vital. A leader must understand that others are always watching and we therefore have to be bold, honest, straightforward, humble and inclusive. Like a chameleon that changes colors based on its environment, leaders know that we can learn from—and be changed by—everyone around us. No one rises to a leadership role alone. Leaders know that, if not for all the hundreds of folks who stand with us, we will not succeed.

In a recent Harvard Business Review article, author Bill Taylor cites the work of the late public intellectual and reformer John W. Gardner, who famously wrote and spoke about the importance of self-renewal in personal growth for leaders. Self-renewal is self-awareness in action. Gardner’s advice for leaders was to “be interested.” As the proverb says, “It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.”