I started my career as a developer. My success was determined largely by how much I could produce and how fast I could produce it. I was an “individual contributor.” As I grew in my career and gained experience and perspective, I realized a couple of things. First, what I could produce was insignificant compared to what a high-performing team could produce. Second, what I most enjoyed was not producing stuff myself — it was creating opportunities for others to be happy and successful. (That’s now my personal mission statement.)
I decided I had to become a better leader because, regardless of what title I had, that was my real job. Becoming a better leader was the only way I was going to be successful — as defined by the success of the people, teams, and organizations I led.
I’m not that interested in the charismatic leaders or leaders who succeed by “force of personality.” I’m more interested in leaders who put systems in place and create environments for the people and organizations they lead to be successful. I can’t “be” anybody else — but I can learn the principles, values, and systems they used for their success and adopt what I think will work for me.
I’ve discovered some “go to” resources in my quest to become a better leader. These resources achieved that “go to” status based on how useful they are to me — measured primarily by how often I reference them and how much they’ve shaped how I think, speak, and act.
Here they are, in no particular order.
Turn the Ship Around
This is a book from author David Marquet. Marquet describes his experience as a U.S. Navy submarine commander when he is given the command of the perennially worst performing submarine in the fleet. He walks through the actions he took to improve the performance of the submarine and its crew and highlights the principles he put into practice with each step. Marquet shares key concepts like creating a “leader leader” model (in contrast to “leader follower”). He also challenges the notion that leaders can empower others; empowerment presumes that others didn’t already have the power to begin with.
The story ends with Marquet’s submarine going from worst to first, as you might expect. Check that. The story ends with Marquet’s submarine going from worst to first — and then staying in that position for years after he left the command. What Marquet had done was not just transform the performance of the submarine and its crew. As Marquet puts it, he had created a “leadership factory” that sustained the high performance of the submarine and created leaders who took that high-performing culture to other parts of the Navy.
Subscribe to his “weekly nudge” email (right on the home page of his web site) to get bite-sized leadership lessons with simple actions you can try out quickly. I’ve shared more than a few of these with my team.
I’ve always struggled applying the Myers-Briggs (MBTI) assessment in practice. I knew what “type” I was (INTJ) and what that implied. After all, it was intended to describe “me”. However, I had a really hard time remembering what the other types implied — there were 15 of them! What was the difference between an ENFP and an ISTJ?
The DiSC assessment is a similar beast to the MBTI, but I found it a lot simpler and clearer than the MBTI and easier for me to apply in practice. It helped me understand myself and others better. More importantly, it helped me understand how I could relate to others better. How is someone motivated? What stresses them? How do they like information? How — and why — do they make decisions they do? Understanding yourself and others may be the single most important leadership tool you have.
This is one of the books from Patrick Lencioni, head of The Table Group and author of the classic Five Dysfunctions of a Team. In “The Advantage”, Lencioni provides a wonderful recipe for building a team and for getting and sustaining alignment within that team. He advocates for getting really clear on a few foundational elements first: why the organization exists (i.e., its purpose), the work it does, its few differentiating core values, and principles that have contributed to the success of the organization so far that must remain true for continued success (he calls these “strategic anchors”). Lencioni also suggests a meeting cadence and structure to enhance team alignment and improve team decision-making.
We’ve used this recipe at Excella with great success. We have better team cohesiveness, alignment, decisions, and (I believe) results. And the basic building blocks we put in place years ago have stood the test of time.
Before his death on June 4, 2010, I knew John Wooden was a great basketball coach. Following his death, I found out how great he truly was — not just as a basketball coach, but as a leader and a human being. Basketball wasn’t why he was great; it was merely the opportunity for people to see his inherent greatness.
Wooden lived his life by a set of values and principles. He had a “pyramid of success” that captured the qualities he believed are most important to achieving “competitive greatness.” He had a “seven point creed” that his father gave him when he graduated from grammar school. He had a system by which he lived his life and, thereby, achieved success. And he made it a point to teach others what that system was, so they could have success, too.
That system certainly translated to success on the court. Wooden won ten national championships in the span of twelve years, including seven in a row. He never had a losing season as a head coach. That is the definition of sustainability. You can’t argue his success was because of just one player. It had to be something that transcended a single player’s four-year college career. I should also mention it took him sixteen years at UCLA before he won his first national championship.
Hyatt produces tons of content and resources to help leaders “win at work and succeed at life.” Hmmm, I like winning and succeeding. He has a weekly podcast, called “This Is Your Life,” where each episode ends with the statement, “It’s your life — your one and only life. Now go make it count.” OK, now you have my attention. Hyatt shares his perspective and wisdom on skills a leader needs to be successful, like accountability, leading in the face of criticism, and goal-setting. He also geeks out occasionally with gadgets and tech, like getting the most out of Evernote. Most of what he shares is free. He also has paid content available, such as ebooks and online and in-person courses.
No matter your faith, the Bible has fantastic leadership principles and lessons embedded throughout. It has examples of what good leadership is and what bad leadership is — sometimes from the same person (e.g., Moses, King David, the apostle Peter). In the “good leadership” bucket, there are lessons on courage, taking risks, effective delegation, communicating vision, adhering to principles when times get tough, and self-sacrifice. In the “bad leadership” bucket, there are warnings about selfishness, dishonesty, short-sightedness, and compromising your personal values for the sake of being liked. If you want a great place to start, just read through Proverbs for quick-hitting leadership and life principles from King Solomon, the wisest man in history.