December 2006 - A lot of Hooey!
We try to have light, fun articles for December each year. This month, Kenny Moore adds his unique touch.
Leadership Development: A Whole Lot of Hooey
By Kenny Moore
Iíve worked with business executives for more than 20 years, and only a few have proved to be exceptional. And those that are, have never attended a "Leadership Development" program a day in their lives. Oddly enough, the executives who did, usually wound up being merely mediocre.
Likewise, most of the "High Potentials" Iíve seen do little more than whatís considered politically correct. Pleasing oneís superiors still seems to be the dominant mode for climbing the corporate ladder.
Upon close examination, Iíve come to discover that stellar performers share very little in common. Some are bold and independent. Others, obnoxious and rude. Several are even shy and taciturn. It doesnít really seem to matter. Mentoring, training and coaching have never appealed to them. They see it all as unnecessary. What they possess is not the product of education or development. It comes from somewhere else.
I now believe that great leaders are more like artists than executives. Picasso knew what he was talking about when he said, "I donít develop; I am."
There is a Best Practice business model that explains this phenomenon. Itís not from Tom Peters or Jim Collins. Itís from another astute business luminary ó Plato. Granted, as a 4th century B.C. practitioner, he was in a different kind of business than todayís experts, but over the years his books have outsold anyone whoís ever been on Oprah.
Platoís view of Leadership derives from his "Acorn Theory." In a nutshell, hereís how it works.
All of us are born into this world with an "acorn" that is destined to grow into a mighty oak. This acorn is often referred to as our calling, vocation or destiny. Before arriving here, we were perfectly clear on what our calling was Ė but in the process of being born all remembrances were lost. Plato believed that the gods send us here with a precise destiny; we just canít remember what it is. To help manage this dilemma, we are accompanied by our own "daimon," (also, daemon or dśmon) loosely translated as a Guardian Angel. Itís our angel who remembers our vocation and is individually assigned to make sure it gets lived out.
Peril and misfortune may assail us. Enemies and miscreants may assault us. Parents and educators may even abuse us. No need to worry; the acorn will prevail. The daimon is ever near to insure a safe passage. For some, says Plato, the dangers and difficulties have elements of divine necessity: all required to mature the acorn, crush it underfoot . . . so that it may blossom into a mighty oak. Gods donít waste time on fruitless endeavors. The Divine has a pre-ordained master plan in place.
Similar to Churchillís description of Russia, the acorn is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. Lack of clarity doesnít let us off the hook. Living out our acorn and cooperating with the daimon is of critical importance because our happiness is intimately connected to it. Money, fame and success will not insure our personal fulfillment. Cooperating with our calling, will. And, we are all invited to do so, and do it well. ó with our own flair; in our own inimitable style. Weíre not here to live out our parentís wishes or our companyís Vision. Weíve got more compelling goals to achieve.
Being worthy of our destiny requires embracing the talents bestowed upon us and bringing them to public fruition. Itís about being visible and making a difference. Sometimes, the acorn manifests itself early in life. Other times, it ripens with the passage of years.
Growing up into our responsibilities is only part of the journey. There is a need to grow down as well. Spreading our wings and souring to the heights is merely one aspect. Like the mighty oak whose branches reach high into the air, there is a corresponding network of earthly roots that must sink themselves deep into the soil anchoring it for display. The growing down part of the tree is as important as its growing up, lest in the face of foul weather, it topples.
The growing up part is public and often met with acknowledgment and worldly attention. Growing down is private, usually performed in the darkness of night and surrounded by the mundane affairs of daily life.
While speaking recently at a business conference, I ended by quoting Gandhiís dictum that we must "be the change we wish to see in the world." After the talk, a woman approached and asked if I was familiar with the entire quote. I wasnít. She recited it from memory: "Almost everything you do will seem insignificant, but it is very important that you do it. Be the change you wish to see in the world." Gandhi understood the value of the prosaic.
Engaging in the insignificant and pedestrian aspects of our lives tempers the grandness of the acornís call. Showing up for work, caring for family and friends, performing daily chores are ordinary but critical components of our destiny. It keeps us grounded, accessible and wedded to the earthiness of the human condition.
Consider David Thomas. As an infant, he never knew his birth parents and was shifted around from pillar to post, losing his adoptive mother when he was five and two stepmothers by the age of 10. He eventually wound up being raised by his aged grandmother. Dave wasnít exactly the brightest of students either, dropping out of school when he was 15. He got a few jobs, but nothing extraordinary. He had to grow down before he grew up. Dave performed menial chores always under the auspices of his benevolent grandmother and his ever-present daimon. Eventually, things began to change.
With some luck cooking food in the army and later running a KFC restaurant, he took a bold step and opened a small hamburger joint in Columbus, Ohio ó a few blocks from where I studied as a graduate student. He named it after his daughter, hoping it would bring him good fortune. He even made his hamburgers square, not round ó remembering the advice of the woman who raised him, "Donít cut corners."
Mr. Thomas eventually became a philanthropist and a media darling pitching his successful franchise, Wendyís. Remembering the pain of his early childhood, he lobbied Congress to enact legislation to help families adopt kids and change employment law to extend benefits to people who did. He even hired a tutor so he could get his high school diploma at the unseemly age of 60. The teenagers at the school voted him "Most Likely to Succeed," and elected him and his wife of 47 years as king and queen of the prom. Remember, David started out as an orphan.
Or, how about Harold Yuker? Born with cerebral palsy, he was forced to go to a school for crippled children with little chance of academic advancement. Back then, kids like that were expected to stay out of sight and not embarrass themselves or others. He prevailed on the system, and went on to get his Ph.D. As Provost and Dean of Faculties at Hofstra University, he made a point to go out of his way to ensure other physically challenged children would never have to endure what he did. Harold got laws changed, doors opened and mindsets moved. The University even named a reference library after him. Handicapped? Yes. Disabled? Never!
Ella, as a little girl, showed up at the Harlem Opera House to tap dance in a talent show. After the Master of Ceremonies introduced her, at the last minute she changed her mind, "I ainít gonna dance; instead, I wanna sing." And, sing she did ó to prolonged applause and wild raves from the crowd. Ella Fitzgerald came that day to the theater intending to dance. Obviously, something else was underfoot.
We need not only look at publicly recognized personages. Carol, a friend of mine at work, told me that as a teenager she should have been in a car that wound up in a tragic, deadly accident. She missed her ride. "I think thereís a reason I was spared," is the way she looks at it. What that reason is, I havenít a clue. Last year, I was present at one of my companyís off-site programs with 500 of our employees. When we asked them to speak publicly about leaders who have changed their lives, Carol was cited by more than a few.
Our HR staff is still wondering why Carolís name has never appeared on their list of High Potentials. Itís quite possible she may be a step or two ahead of our newly revised Performance Appraisal System. Hard as it is for some to fathom, Carolís reach may far exceed Corporate Americaís grasp.
Role models abound; look at your own family and friends. Theyíve got an acorn and an active daimon as well. More importantly, look within. It is most vibrantly present there.
Even though Platoís thinking falls more in the realm of mythology than modern day Leadership theory, is there really much of a difference? Its premise resonates with humankindís experience. In our more reflective moments, weíre aware that we have been awarded particular gifts; we know that weíve been called; we are certain that weíre here for a higher purpose. Our life journey is replete with experiences that are bizarre, serendipitous and even precarious. And yet we have endured. There is an overarching reason for this.
Speaking about this deeper longing, John Mason Brown reminds us, "We act as though comfort and luxury were the chief requirements of life when all that we need to make us really happy is something to be enthusiastic about." What could generate more enthusiasm than living out the mystery of our lives with a sense of panache, intrigue and adventure? Even our English word enthusiasm comes from the ancient Greeks, meaning "possessed by the gods."
Itís not by chance that we are here. We have a unique destiny with a clear purpose in mind. Powerful intermediaries have been dispatched to accompany us in bringing this all about. Even in the Bible, the Divine reminds us, "Before I knit in your motherís womb, I knew you. Before you were born, I chose you."
So, be bold. Be brave. Take more risks and stop playing it safe. You already are safe.
And the next time someone offers to send you away for some Leadership Development, tell Ďem to buzz off: youíve got more important things to do with your time.
Author: Copyright © 2006 Kenny Moore, all rights reserved to the author, article used with permission of the author. Kenny Moore is co-author of The CEO and the Monk: One Companyís Journey to Profit and Purpose (John Wiley and Sons, 2004), rated as one of the top ten best selling business books on Amazon.com. He is Corporate Ombudsman and Human Resources Director at a New York City Fortune 500 company. Reporting to the CEO, he is primarily responsible for awakening joy, meaning and commitment in the workplace. While these efforts have largely been met with skepticism, he remains eternally optimistic of their future viability. Kenny can be reached at kennythemonk [at] yahoo.com.
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