11 April 2020
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Leaders have guts

During the week I was interviewed by a journalist who was writing a piece for NAB’s business customers on the subject I’ve always found hard — leadership! It’s funny in some areas I have no difficulty in taking on a role of a leader but in other areas I find it really challenging.

This isn’t really a surprise as it happens all the time and I think there are few people who walk the face of the earth who are good leaders in every aspect of their life.

When I interviewed the US business leadership guru, John Maxwell, who wrote arguably my favourite self-help book — The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership — he admitted that there were a few laws he had trouble with but that there were less nowadays compared to when he first wrote the book!

And that’s the way it should be. John contends, and I argued this in my NAB interview, that people running businesses, families, teams and even political parties can learn leadership.

The great local case in point was John Howard, who was rejected by the voters of Australia and his own party many times before he eventually nailed it 1996. And year by year he grew in stature as a leader, explaining why he became the second longest serving PM with 11 years plus, behind Sir Robert Menzies with 18 years.

Experience is a great teacher but often that experience makes you a better political leader, business leader or coach but it still can leave you as a dud when it comes to leading your family.

Over the years I’ve interviewed and analysed business greats who not surprisingly had wonderfully successful businesses but their personal lives showed their leadership skills were found wanting when it came to leading their loved ones.

In giving the young journo some heads up notes, I reflected on some of the big leadership revelations that have been delivered to me by great leaders, either in my face-to-face interviews or via the ‘must do’ activity of an aspirational leader, which is reading biographies of those who have actually done it.

Gerry Harvey says he likes to read about others demonstrating a critical characteristic of leaders and that’s a willingness to always be learning. When you shut the door on personal growth, you’re surrendering to the pressures that explain why leaders of businesses end up avoiding success, why families endure divorces and teams live with a high failure rate.

I believe our high suicide rate is a consequence of second-rate leadership in families, schools and society in general and we’d all do well to contemplate this question John Maxwell encountered as a young college student.

Maxwell came from an enlightened family where his Dad encouraged his kids to read the greatest books ever written. He refused to pay his son to do chores but did pay him to read books, which he would then talk to him about. It was a process created through John’s father’s leadership and was a method others might have viewed as madness.

The fact he took on his son  and refused to pay him for chores was a sign of leadership that a lot of parents won’t do. My watching of great leaders reveals that they are people who have the guts to get out of their comfort zone and they have the confidence to back themselves, even with tough emotional issues like taking on a loved one for a good reason.

I suspect if the books were on sport, John would’ve become a sports star or a prominent sporting scribe but the books were Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich, Dale Carnegie’s How To Win Friends And Influence People, The Power of Positive Thinking by Norman Vincent Peale and The Bible.

Maxwell became a pastor first before turning his leadership lessons to the business world, or more accurately, when the business world turned their attention towards him.

The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership became a New York Times best-seller and set John on a path. That book has sold over 20 million books on the subject!

And what do I remember most from the book that I shared with my journalist buddy and I’d like to share with you?

Well, I love this one from John: “Anyone can steer a ship but it takes a leader to chart the course.” This makes me think of Steve Jobs, who led Apple like a tyrant leader at times but was driven by a fanatical fight against second rateness.

But the crucial lesson for me from John was that “leadership is not learnt in a day but daily.” And this ties in with his most memorable story that as I told you above came from his uni days.

His mentor once asked him: “What is your plan for self-improvement?” And while he was aspirational and the fact he had a mentor showed how determined he was to make his mark, he confessed he did not actually have one.

As a consequence, he wrote down his plan, just as an entrepreneur writes down a business plan and a financial adviser creates a wealth plan. This to me is the big lesson if you want to improve your leadership skills — write down a self-improvement plan because you have to be impressive and have exceptional character if you expect people to follow you.

Successful businesses are based on systems and processes that ensure the business does well, even when the leader isn’t there. That’s how Ray Croc succeeded in growing McDonald’s around the world — his leadership systems worked when he was not there!

Another big tip I’d throw to aspiring leaders — not only do you have to write down your plan for self-improvement, you also have to want it and believe it.

And the great leaders breed followers who, in turn, become great leaders like great parents create great kids.

Get these crucial steps right and I reckon you’ll become a significant leader. But if you don’t make it, you will know it. As John joked to me: “If you think you are leader and you turn around and no one is following you, then you’re not a leader, you’re just going for a walk!”

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