January 2010


Drs. Anthony and Crystal Gambino, in their essay on reluctant leadership, look for the following traits:

  • servanthood
  • teachability
  • initiative
  • passion
  • encouragement

Some of these characteristics are more fundamental to and may be observed even earlier in the process than Tim Elway’s suggestions. While initiative and passion are somewhat predictable — they’re often the points where we often first notice someone — the others are less obvious.

An interest in being others-focused is an excellent starting point. A willingness to serve and the companion part of it — noticing needs around them — are the foundation of leaders of integrity who support their direct reports. Likewise for a desire to encourage and lift up people around them.

I totally agree with teachability as an early sign of leadership. I’ve heard it said several times that leaders show insatiable curiosity and ask lots of questions. A desire to learn and grow eventually shapes a leader who is a developer of others. Teachability is a trait that can be spotted early and should be part of a leader until the day he dies.

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What should we look for in a potential leader who has not emerged yet?

Last year, Steve Murrell posted Tim Elmore’s list of traits he looks for in those he seeks to train in leadership:

  • gifted to lead
  • influential with people
  • fruitful even before they have a leadership position
  • trustworthy in small things
  • serving in some capacity already

This a a great starting point. The first one is a bit nebulous and probably becomes evident only as you look at the other bullets. The last three are certainly related. The idea is that leadership is scalable. Someone who uses relational and spiritual authority to bear fruit without the position is likely to be even more effective once they have positional authority. Jim Collins says as much in his monograph Good to Great and the Social Sectors. So look for fruit, even in the smallest things.

I’m intrigued by the sports management business. Trades, drafts and coaching hires are compelling to me, because general managers are searching for hidden gems. You’ll often see a general manager trade “too much” for a pitcher who was average in the minor leagues or who had a losing record with another team. It’s evident that they see something they can work with in the middle of failure. That’s the job of an established leader: to mine for talent among those with less experience.

When you think of potential leaders in your setting, what are the seeds you look for?

There’s an interesting article in the NY Times on the subject of business schools acquiring a taste for design. Why? They discovered that many MBA students were trying to apply rigid, pre-planned strategies to today’s challenges, and they just weren’t working. What they need in times of discontinuous change is the ability to think critically and creatively… on their feet. The best thing design thinking offers for the changing world today is agile problem solving ability.

As I discussed in my last post, designers need restrictions. I think this principle applies directly to leadership. I would even go as far as saying that a great leader can’t lead well in abundance. Leaders thrive when things aren’t going as planned. When a leader is forced to deal with a Global Financial Crisis, he sees it as an opportunity for incredible creativity. This economy is a chance for innovation. The shift to postmodernism is a chance for innovation. The handover of leadership from the largest generation to one half its size is a chance for innovation.

No wonder Bill Hybels said last August that he gets an extra bounce in his step when he considers the unique challenges we’re facing right now! We as leaders get to design the future.

One of the hottest trends a couple of years ago is becoming mainstream today: Business school are rolling out classes and entire schools to teach design thinking. As a graphic designer who turned to administration, I love the trend, because my design training has certainly shaped my leadership. But what is design thinking? How does it apply to leadership? I’ll cover the first question today.

Let’s start with an even more basic question. What is design? Isn’t it about making things look pretty? Isn’t it focused on the aesthetic? It’s a lot more than that. I always encourage graphic design students to take classes in illustration, photography, psychology, marketing and journalism so they can bring the broadest possible viewpoint to their work, speak to the core functionality of the piece and affect the desired response of their end user. So, “graphic” is a qualifier for a particular kind of designer. The core of design can be applied to appliances, traffic flow, leadership, production lines, furniture and healthcare programs.

Boiling it down, design thinking is a mindset and a methodology to approach challenges. It’s a process of approaching a problem from multiple perspectives and using trial and error to get to the right solution. It’s about drawing inspiration from a variety of sources and applying them to your particular challenge, resulting in innovation. Believe me, this blog post isn’t going to teach you how to do it. It took me five years of school and thousands of hours of practice to shape me.

Let me give you a snapshot of one aspect: idea-driven design. My favorite designer is Paul Rand. Developer of logos for such firms as IBM, UPS and Westinghouse, Rand is one of the great thinkers in the design field. Here’s his take:

I have two goals. The first is that everything I do as a designer must have an idea: it cannot just look nice. The second is, it has to look nice.

So, what’s an idea? The energy created by the collision of two opposing thoughts. If you give a designer a blank sheet of paper and tell him to make something that looks nice, he will be paralyzed. At the minimum, he needs a topic, a message and an audience. But he needs more than that; great design comes from a seemingly impossible contradiction. Perhaps the impossibility is budget-related. Or the combination of two impossible desires that cannot possibly co-exist. For instance, a financial services client who hates the color green. Can you imagine?!!

A designer needs a contrast to create a spark. In other words, designers cannot operate in abundance; designers need restrictions! Clients, are you listening?

Let me give you an example. David Ellis Dickerson used to write cards for Hallmark. He now has a hobby/business where he creates cards on the fly for people who get in situations Hallmark never anticipated. My favorite: someone contacted him to ask what kind of card she could give to the person whose toilet she broke. Talk about some great design parameters and some dangerous territory! Check out the vlog to hear his design process and his brilliant solution.

I find it interesting that some terms that Christians have begun to lose — think the decline of Biblical literacy and the abuse of some evangelism practices — have recently been reconditioned and given new life in the secular world. From dictionary.com:

Bible – any book, reference work, periodical, etc., accepted as authoritative, informative, or reliable.

I’m not sure the same people who keep within easy reach The Baseball Coaching Bible, The Golf Geek’s Bible or Dog Breed Bible would ascribe the same “essential guidebook” characteristics to the Word of God.

Evangelist – a person marked by evangelical enthusiasm for or support of any cause.

Think Seth Godin. In his free ebook, he includes the following page on Evangelism:

The future belongs to people who can spread ideas.
Here are ten things to remember:
1. Create a cause. A cause seizes the moral high
ground and makes people’s lives better.
2. Love the cause. “Evangelist” isn’t a job title. It’s
a way of life. If you don’t love a cause, you can’t
evangelize it.
3. Look for agnostics, ignore atheists. It’s too
hard to convert people who deny your cause. Look
for people who are supportive or neutral instead.
4. Localize the pain. Never describe your cause by
using bull shiitake terms like “revolutionary” and
“paradigm shifting.” Instead, explain how it helps a
person.
5. Let people test drive the cause. Let people try
your cause, take it home, download it, and then
decide if it’s right for them.
6. Learn to give a demo. A person simply cannot
evangelize a product if she cannot demo it.
7. Provide a safe first step. Don’t put up any big
hurdles in the beginning of the process. The path
to adopting a cause needs a slippery slope.
8. Ignore pedigrees. Don’t focus on the people
with big titles and big reputations. Help anyone
who can help you.
9. Never tell a lie. Credibility is everything for an
evangelist. Tell the truth—even if it hurts.
Actually, especially if it hurts.
10. Remember your friends. Be nice to the people
on the way up because you might see them again
on the way down.
Guy Kawasaki is a founding partner and entrepreneur-in-residence
at Garage Technology Ventures. He is also the co-founder
of Alltop.com. Previously, he was an Apple Fellow at Apple
Computer, Inc. Guy is the author of nine books.

Perhaps it’s time for Christians to learn from today’s culture and reappropriate some of these terms for our own use. I bet Christians could be really good at evangelism.

My only angle in diversity is my age. One day I will wake up and discover that I’m an “older white male.” It’s my future, whether I like it or not, so I operate with some sense of urgency. Because age diversity is so tenuous, I spend a lot of my peer mentoring time encouraging other young people to step up and offer their gifts. Organizations need young people who are willing to use their leadership gifts!

But here’s the thing: we’re all destined to get “old.” I recall a talk by Mark Driscoll that drew my attention to a couple of obscure verses at the end of Ecclesiastes 4.

It is better to be a poor but wise youth than an old and foolish king who refuses all advice. Such a youth could rise from poverty and succeed. He might even become king, though he has been in prison. But then everyone rushes to the side of yet another youth who replaces him.  Endless crowds stand around him, but then another generation grows up and rejects him, too. So it is all meaningless—like chasing the wind. (NLT)

I think this parable has incredible relevance today for all those with titles and those who aspire to lead. Note that the spotlight in Solomon’s story is on the one who is rising, not the one who has made it. Solomon is not saying that it’s meaningless to aspire to lead; but he is saying that power is an illusion, and striving to hold onto it is like chasing the wind. By all means, take advantage of the moment that God has given you. Step up, express your voice and use your gifts.

But as you do, remember that it will be someone else’s turn far too quickly. All of us are destined to become foolish kings, when we find ourselves out of the limelight. There is always another generation rising up behind us. So hold power loosely, and spend at least part of your moment investing in the next generation.

The key to the parable is this: what makes a king foolish is the refusal to receive advice. There is no age limit to being a learner. Older, established leaders should make it a habit to keep young leaders around them. Perhaps the most valuable thing they bring to a team is the ability to understand the times. Mentoring should be two-way; there’s always something wise youth can teach established leaders.

I pray that whether I’m a young, emerging leader or an established leader, I will always be willing to learn from others. I pray that as a young leader, I won’t think of my own perspective more highly than I ought. And I pray that as my body ages, I will always reflect youthfulness in my attitude and mindset. As Douglas MacArthur puts it:

You are as young as your faith, as old as your doubt; as young as your self-confidence, as old as your fear; as young as your hope, as old as your despair.

I think the most elusive form of diversity is age. You only have a limited window to capture the treasure of youth. If you wait to have all your doubts about a young leader’s maturity and experience resolved, he or she will not bring you the diversity you need. You’ll have to move to the next young candidate, who will likely bring the same concerns. The fact is that young leaders are high risk, high reward. Sure, they won’t be the most experienced candidate, but they have more room to grow. More upside, bigger dreams and fewer fears.

In his most recent book, George Barna points out that Jimmy Blanchard became CEO of Synovus Financial Corp when he was 29! How on earth could a company like that turn over their operation to such a young leader? You know he wasn’t the most experienced candidate they looked at. They obviously wanted the energy, ideas, passion for people and leadership potential that he and Synovus became known for. It paid off in big ways. Not only did he oversee the period of greatest growth, but they’ve been voted America’s #1 company to work for.

What are the things you look for in emerging leaders? While you may not get a long resume, there are signs of future success. I’m going to spend some time on that topic in the following months. I think it’s worth exploring, because as Boomers get closer to retirement, they’re going to have to turn over leadership to a generation that’s about half their size. Leadership is therefore going to be handed to two generations, meaning leaders are going to be younger.

One final thought. Eventually, every young leader risks becoming what they hate most: an established leader holding onto power too long. Therefore the most important trait to cultivate in young leaders if you want age diversity is the desire and ability to develop others. Maybe I’m biased, but I think if you want any kind of diversity in your organization, that’s the most important trait to have in all levels of leadership. Looking for that ability should be part of all hiring and promotion thought processes.

Development should never be an add-on. If you’ve put the right people in leadership positions, they do it naturally and organically. The next generation benefits, ethnic minorities benefit, the organization benefits. Everyone benefits when you have developers in your organization. Just ask Synovus.

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