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Leadership Thought #278 – Leadership Requires More Than Potential

January 5, 2012

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In sports and in life, it doesn’t matter how much potential you have or how good you are, if your team/organization consistently loses or doesn’t live up to expectations.  I’ve seen many capable and talented leaders stumble when it comes to getting results from others.  It’s not always the smartest, most confident, and technically superior person who wins, but the leader who is able to get impressive results from average people.   Leaders need to grow and leverage the capabilities of their team, continually develop their own skills sets, and step up in the clutch if they want to leave a legacy of winning and high performance.

Very quickly the pedigree of your business school doesn’t matter (if you even went to one) – it is just a foot in the door.  There is an enormous difference between how you perform in school and how you navigate the rigors of the business world.  In my experience, there is some truth to the famous saying that “A students work for B students in companies owned by C Students.” Theory and practice don’t always jibe.  Being smart is an asset but only as far as it can be successfully leveraged and transferred to other people.  Intellectual humility is necessary.  You are never successful despite your colleagues, only ever because of them. It’s an important lesson many talented smart people struggle to learn.

In addition, potential is like a muscle, unless you exercise it will atrophy.  What made you successful yesterday won’t necessarily translate to tomorrow.  Continued professional development is not optional if you want to achieve long-term success.  You need to regularly hone your skills and broaden your experience base to increase your leadership capacity to deal with uncertainty and maximize opportunities.  While you should always trust your gut, it should be based on an informed rather than ego-driven perspective.  Every day is an opportunity to learn and get better. You never know when your abilities will get tested.

Finally, you need to be able to perform in the clutch.  Padding your stats when you are down by three touchdowns because the other team is playing prevent defense may look good on paper, but it is inconsequential. Anyone can make an easy sale or ride market trends when they are good.  It’s when your back is against the wall and the challenge is great, that true leaders step up and perform. The current business downturn has tested the mettle of many previously successful business owners and quite a few are no longer in business or diminished in size and/or scope. Unlike most other people, top leaders thrive in these conditions and want the ball in their hands.  It is at these moments that people especially look to be led.  To paraphrase John Adams, “Character is forged in the fires of adversity.”  Most of us crumble under significant pressure or avoid it altogether.

Leadership is not for the meek of heart but also not for those with too much self-confidence and ego either.  It is demanding work.  You must be willing to grow, learn from and rely on other people; continually invest in your own skills and capabilities; and take on the big challenges/opportunities that others cannot or will not embrace.