‘Give a man a match and he will be warm for a day, set a man on fire and he will be warm for the rest of his life.’
Hidden deep within this adolescent obscenity lays a fundamental truth about the nature of leadership. The fire in this case is, of course, the fire of the mind. It can be kindled, for instance, when an individual first experiences how much they have to contribute to a team and, if they set very high standards for themselves, how excellent they can really be. These lessons learned are among the greatest gifts that any human being can give to another. Personally I mark these lessons learned and taught as among my greatest gifts received and finest contributions made.
I am often struck by how many successful leaders are also highly effective teachers … and struck even more by how the lessons that they teach result in changed lives and kindled, or rekindled, fires. The teams they build often set themselves apart with superior performance and seemingly impossible accomplishments.
A story comes to mind about a man who rose to high political office. Afterwards he found himself running his own company and dealing with a young associate whom he had tasked to produce an analysis of a critical part of a major assignment. The young associate submitted his report and it came back heavily marked up with comments … ‘this is not clear’, ‘are you sure that this is the case?’ and ‘I’m not sure that you got this right’, etc. The final mark was a rather direct suggestion that the report needed to be further researched. The associate redoubled his efforts and submitted a substantially revised report … only to get it back with a rash of similar comments and queries. What followed was an all night effort at improvement. The next morning he walked into his senior’s office and dropped the report on his desk. ‘Sir, I have worked all night on this. It is the best I can do. If it’s not good enough, I guess you’ll have to fire me’.
‘This is the best you can do?’ ‘Yes it is!’ came the reply.
‘OK, now I’ll read it.’
The report ended up playing a critical role in the successful completion of the assignment and the associate learned the difference between what is casually good and what is purposefully excellent. Two lessons were forcefully deployed. First, ‘if you are going to work for me, I expect your best first time and every time’. Second, ‘you are capable of much more than you allow yourself’. One lesson without the other would not have been nearly as effective.
The elder had seen unrealized potential in the young associate (an important skill of any effective leader) and structured a learning process that allowed the associate to directly experience how great his potential really was (a critical skill that often puts potential on the road to reality). A fire had been lit.
An effective leader not only kindles these fires of the mind but connects them to a humanity that tempers bravado. The really good lessons come not only with a sense of empowerment but also with a profound sense of humility that banishes shame in favor of a kinder, and often whimsical, relationship to one’s self. In that combination is the beginnings of true human growth.
Learning how to kindle and tend these fires should be a top priority for any CEO (or CEO to be) … and always one of the primary areas of focus in my CEO mentoring engagements. The skill is central to good leadership.
Think of it this way, as a leader it is always better to develop a team of maturing adults than one made up of insufferable, angry, prideful and resentful adolescents. A team of the former can change the world: a team of the latter will most often end up destroying each other and your company.