Dec 2020Brad D. SmithArticle

The Five Principles of Leadership: Principle #1 is Potential

In my most recent post, I shared a definition of leadership that I believe best articulates what is required for leaders to succeed in the fast-moving 21st Century. In the article, I deconstructed the various attributes necessary for a leader to role model “the ability to inspire others to achieve shared objectives.” In doing so, I foreshadowed a framework derived from more than three decades of benchmarking, learning, applying and adapting to bring it to life. I call it “The Five Principles of Leadership” – Potential, Purpose, People, Playbook, Pay-It-Forward, and committed to devoting the next five articles to diving deep into each of these “P’s”, sharing lessons learned, best practices and pragmatic tips for implementing the model in our daily leadership habits and organizations.

With this backdrop, this is the first of the deeper dive articles and establishes the foundation for the remainder of the model – Unleashing Potential.

In advance, I will confess to a particular school of thought (or bias) when it comes to the difference between a manager and a leader. Its origin comes from the influence of Bill Campbell, the iconic “Trillion Dollar Coach” of the Silicon Valley, who coached some of the world’s most successful CEO’s and companies, served as Intuit’s second CEO and Chairman, and who invested in me as my executive coach for more than a decade. It was his view on this age-long debate that shaped my thinking. Simply stated, “your title makes you a manager, but your people will decide if you’re a leader.”

Your title makes you a manager, but your people will decide if you’re a leader.

Embedded in this statement and the leadership philosophy that follows is the view that a leader’s job is not to put greatness into people. Greatness exists in all of us, and a leader’s job is to create the environment where that greatness can emerge. Leaders focus more on potential, while managers focus more on performance. Most importantly, a leader sees their role as a coach, not a judge.

A classic illustration of the difference that Bill would share came in the form of a leadership parable which he called “The Man in the Ditch.”

As the lesson goes, a man found himself stuck in a deep ditch, and after hours of exploring every obvious option to free himself, he simply slumped to the ground and gave up. Moments later, a passerby shouted down to him to ask if he needed help. With a quick reply of “yes,” the passerby offered encouragement and praise, telling the stranded man he was capable of anything he put his mind to, that he believed in him and was confident that with a bit more effort, the man would indeed escape his dire situation. Then he left. The stranded man felt encouraged and supported, but remained stranded.

A second passerby came along and shouted down to ask if his assistance was needed. The quick reply was once again “yes,” at which point the passerby opened his wallet and tossed down numerous dollars. Then he left. The stranded man felt sufficiently resourced, but remained stranded.

The third passerby came along and recognized the man in the ditch. With a familiar voice she shouted down to ask if her friend needed help. The quick reply was once again “yes,” and the passerby promptly jumped down into the ditch. The stranded man was stunned, and said in a dispirited voice, “great, now we’re both stuck.” The friend replied, “no we’re not, I’ve been here before and I know the way out.”

Bill’s point was simple – a leader’s job is to get down in the ditch with your team. Sometimes the answer is not to simply offer constructive feedback or praise, or to throw more resources at a problem. Sometimes the answer is to stand shoulder to shoulder, work the issue together, role modeling, supporting and teaching along the way.

I’ll never forget one of the many times Bill “jumped into a ditch with me” during my tenure as CEO. At the end of the experience, I turned to thank him for his thought partnership, at which point he smiled and said, “Brad, when I see you, I see two people. The person you are today, and the person you’re capable of being. I want to introduce those two people.”

I benefited from Bill’s approach to leadership – finding greatness in all of us, focusing more on potential, and seeking to be a coach versus a judge. I strive to emulate his approach and pay it forward every day.

Take a moment to reflect on individuals in your life who have had the greatest impact in unleashing the potential in you: your self-confidence, your capability, or your advancement. Who went beyond being a manager, and became a leader in your eyes? I’d love to hear what you admired about their approach and the impact it had on you, so I can continue to learn and grow as well.


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