09 Mar Transformative Leaders and The Power of WHO
Thomas Geisel was ready to give up on his dream.
Twenty-seven publishers couldn’t be wrong.
“Your fanciful little books have no commercial value.”
But it was a dream that would not die easily.
Perhaps that’s why when he ran into an old college buddy that day on the street he accepted the cup of coffee his friend offered to buy him – and the advice about some of the things he might consider if he ever wanted to become a published author.
Thomas listened – and encouraged by someone who cared enough about him to give him some feedback that mattered – Geisel tried one more time.
And a publisher finally said yes.
In the years that followed Thomas Geisel would often say fate intervened that day – had he been walking on a different side of the street he could just as easily have ended up running a Laundromat.
Millions of us have that sidewalk encounter to thank for The Cat in the Hat, The Grinch, The Lorax, and many more amazing characters who have danced across the public’s consciousness in the years since.
Never heard of Thomas Geisel? Maybe his pen name is more familiar.
My grandson and I will soon embark on a magical journey to the world he created – where one story in particular remains my favorite. It’s actually a part of many of my professional workshops – and I find myself referencing it in my Leadership Executive Coaching sessions as well.
Horton Hears a Who is the story of a wayward pachyderm that insists he hears the tiny voices of a people on a speck of dust.
But no one else can.
When the book was first published in 1954 readers had no idea the little people of Whoville would become famous. No, they were simply entranced by a loving elephant that insisted, “A person’s a person – no matter how small.”
I was reminded of Horton’s mantra late last year – after a long, emotional conversation with a corporate employee frustrated about the direction of his company – and what he regarded as an incompetent line of leaders.
“They’re pretenders,” he proclaimed, “And none of them would I follow across the street to get an ice cream cone. They’ve ruined this company – they don’t care about me – I don’t think they even know I exist.”
Now, to be fair, I’ve heard comments like that before.
Short of sports’ referees, used car salesmen, telemarketers, and politicians – leaders are among the most criticized when it comes to performance.
Having once officiated basketball games (a college part-time job) and having run a telemarketing department early in my career I can at least identify – so far, no prospects for elected office or a local car lot but I remain open.
The leadership thing is something I can relate to a bit more. For the past 36 years I’ve enjoyed some kind of formal leadership responsibility – and like a great many in the healthcare sector that means responsibility for billions of dollars in portfolio and thousands of people along the way.
I suffer no illusions on how challenging it is to be a leader – I may someday write another book, just on the mistakes I made.
Early in my journey and like Horton, I invested a lot of time trying to understand the voices of these rare creatures we call leaders.
“What was it,” I asked, “that leaders do that made us feel so differently about them?”
Some time later I reached an inflection point in my research – but it was only when I realized my question was wrong.
The probative question should be, “What do authentic leaders do that make us feel differently … about ourselves?”
Powerful concept in a world where most, if not all of our focus is centered on driving results.
I was to discover that a majority of managers operate in a one-dimensional universe (and that includes many CEOs on down) – this is WHAT we must accomplish – now, HOW we will get there?
There’s a name for that – transactional management. It’s rampant in today’s world – drop in on most business meetings and you can cull all the bells and whistles into two things – Destination and the Direction – or said another way, “what” and “how.”
Maybe that’s one of the reasons that only 35% of our US work force is really engaged in their work – and only 15% of workers globally.
How doesn’t breed followership.
It doesn’t breed commitment.
And it doesn’t foster a passion to do more.
It simply helps pay the bills.
Transformative leaders go further.
Which is where Horton the elephant comes in.
I believe Dr. Seuss knew how lucky he was that someone took the time to notice him all those many years ago.
Someone less focused on what Thomas Geisel wanted to do – and more interested in Thomas.
A long time ago I built a short list of questions I found I always intuitively asked of leaders – the needs that were either addressed or ignored by people in authority.
Over the course of my career I would estimate less than 15% of the “formal” managers I’ve met affirmatively answered all of them.
I speak to those questions – The Five – in my book, The Compass Solution and today often lead seminars about their importance in this very transactional world – where managers push a quid pro quo relationship and then wonder why no one cares to follow them.
Transactional managers exist on every corner and in every industry. They emphasize only the “how” and the “what” – offering extrinsic rewards to simulate movement toward a goal.
At best they affect the hands and the feet of those assigned to them – never touching the heart and the head.
But those of us who have brushed up against at least one transformative leader in our lives have likely learned a simple truth.
Talking about Direction and Destination – the how and the what – is the easy part.
Now, contrast that with the very best leader – the best coach – the best teacher you ever met. What made them different from all the rest?
Better direction? A hyper focus on destination?
No, it’s probable they invested their energy on a higher level – in understanding who you were, what was important to you, and why what you did made a difference. They unleashed the power of Identity and Purpose.
They changed the way you thought about yourself.
The how and the what – any person with a title can handle that.
The who and the why – well, that’s where authentic leaders play.
Thomas Geisel became Dr. Seuss because he met one.
Horton Hears a Who.
He certainly did.
The best leaders do too.