On my business card and homepage, there is a declaration: “The only leader who needs to change is you.” People often ask me what I mean by it, and I know the spirit and reality of the idea is best captured in a true story I share in my book, Heretics to Heroes.
As he confronted a major shift in his industry, Michael, a talented executive, faced a personal choice. His decision is detailed in this Heretics to Heroes excerpt:
“I do seem to be one of the few who recognizes the magnitude of what’s happening,” Michael replied.
“You are. In fact, you’re the only person I’ve run into who is fully awake and capable to lead it (your industry) out of this predicament. Not that the others are not good, talented engineers, supervisors, and managers. They’re actually among the best.
“However, none but you, in my opinion, is ready or able to take on the type of leadership needed. Like it or not, you’re the guy. The question is, are you up to being that leader?” I looked at Michael carefully, letting the moment settle in.
Michael tilted his head back in thought. “How can I, alone, lead this industry?” he asked. “I’m just one person.” Michael rose and tossed his snack package into the trash can next to the door. I could tell that a part of him wanted to exit that door and be done with this conversation. “You won’t be alone, Michael,” I replied. “Some will follow you if you lead, and that’s all you need. You don’t need everyone in the boat with you— just enough to tip the scale in your favor.
“The only one who needs to change is you. You think differently, and others will think differently. You change and they’ll change. Not all of them, but the right ones, the ones who are ready to follow you and grow into leaders in their own right.”
“But what about the ones who don’t follow?” Michael turned back to face me and leaned on the serving counter.
“They’ll leave because they no longer fit in, or they’ll stay and fake it so they can get along until they retire or exit. Either way, you’ll do what’s necessary to keep them out of the way of those who are following. It’s them, the ones who have opted in and are changing, that you’ll want to focus your attention on.”
“So, let’s say I sign up for this role and decide I’m the one to lead the industry. How would it work? What would the process look like?”
“Before we go there, I first need a decision from you. We agreed to meet today so you could tell me whether you’ve decided to continue engaging my coaching. Have you made your decision?”
“I’m not sure. What would you be coaching me about?” Michael returned to his seat.
“About what we’ve been talking about!” I shouted. “About you leading the turnaround of your organization and transformation of your industry.”
“Why does it have to be that at this stage?” Michael asked in a loud, frustrated voice. He stood, walked behind his chair, and placed both hands on the chair back. “Why can’t you just teach me about being a better leader . . . teach me about leadership? Why do I have to agree to change the world before you can coach me?”
By now Michael’s hands were waving in the air as he spoke. It was obvious I was asking him to do something of which he was not sure he was capable. I said in a soft tone, “Michael, sit down. And please try to stay seated.”
Michael dropped into his chair and let out a long sigh. I lowered my voice and spoke gently. “Again, you won’t be changing the world. You won’t even be changing your industry or your people. All you will be changing is you. That’s what leaders do. They get better, and everyone around them gets better. You want me to teach you about leadership? Well, that’s lesson one.”
I slowly began returning my voice to a more normal tone. “And by the way, leadership is not about learning about leadership; it’s about learning about yourself. That can’t happen in a classroom. It pains me to see companies waste their resources on leadership courses. They send their managers, without any meaningful assessment of their leadership potential, to courses designed by academics who themselves possess virtually no leadership faculties or skills. And then they’re disappointed when the managers return unchanged.
“You don’t become a leader by attending a leadership class,” I continued. “Anyone can do that. You become a leader by doing something few others are even willing to take on, like leading the turnaround of a business unit or industry.”
Michael was watching me carefully, listening to every word, but I could see objections rising to the surface.
“I get it. I really do,” he said. “But why save my industry? Why not just improve my organization? Why do we have to aim so high?”
“Because that’s what leaders do,” I said. “You want lesson two about leadership? Here it is: leaders play a big game. And they do so for three reasons. First, who wants to waste a good leader on a small game? I could agree to coach you about some small game, but that’d be a colossal waste of the rare commodity you are. Leaders like you are literally one in thousands. It would be a crime to waste that, especially when your industry is crying out for a leader.
“Second, leaders know that to enlist any meaningful followers— ones who can and will lead on their own— they must invite them into a big game. Who’s going to follow a leader into a small game? As a colleague of mine used to say, ‘We don’t remember Dr. King because he said he had a strategic plan.’” I paused a moment and let the King quote sink in. Michael offered a shy grin.
“And third, it has to be a big game because I don’t coach people who play anything less. Like all leaders, I won’t play a small game. Where’s the fun in that? I coach leaders who are all in and willing to put themselves in service of a big game. And I can’t think of a more meaningful or larger game than helping you first transform your organization and then, having created that foundation, lead this industry into a new future.” There was a long pause. Michael and I sat in silence as he contemplated the weight of what I’d said.
This is the moment I come to with every potential All-In Leader— the moment when he realizes the magnitude of what he’s considering and asks himself whether he’s up to my invitation. He must decide whether he trusts himself and me enough to accept the call.
I left Michael alone with his thoughts and excused myself to take a short break. When I returned, Michael was sitting completely still, reflecting on my invitation. I sat down close to him and said, “Michael, it is perfectly OK to say no to what I’ve proposed.”
Michael looked up at me with surprise and started to speak, but before he could, I continued, “You can join the others around you and drift into the future like they are. Believe me; they’ll accept you with open arms. You can complete your last few years of tenure here and enjoy a nice retirement. No one will blame you if you choose not to lead. In fact, you and I will be the only ones who’ll ever know that you even considered doing so.” He watched me thoughtfully as I went on.
“I’ve purposely placed a fork in the road in front of you. One branch leads to a life of drifting. You’ll be like Lieutenant Dan in the movie Forrest Gump, drifting along, doing his duty, following orders, and destined to die on the field of battle. That path is well lit, and you’ll have lots of company along the way. But let me warn you, that path can rob you of your destiny. You won’t actually die on the battlefield, but your spirit will.
“The other branch leads to a life of leading, and when you first take it, you won’t find anyone there but me. I’ll be waiting to support you if you choose to take that path. And for a long part of the journey, especially at the beginning, you and I will be alone. But if you invite others to join you, as I have you, they’ll follow. Not all, but enough.”
I was quiet for a long while, letting Michael think. He somehow knew I didn’t expect him to respond. “The choice is yours, Michael,” I said. “You contact me once you’ve decided, and if you choose to commit to leading, I’ll make two promises. I’ll hear your commitment and hold you to it, and I’ll guide you to being the leader necessary to transform this organization and turn this industry around— the leader you already are but have not yet fully realized. When you make your choice, let me know. I’ll accept either. Thanks for considering my invitation.”
I left Michael in his conference room. Although I’ve had this conversation with many people, to this day, I never know what they might choose. There is so much that goes into such a momentous decision. I was, as I had told Michael, perfectly OK with either choice, and something told me Michael would make his decision quickly.
I was right. The next day, Michael called me into his office. “I’m all in,” he said before I even sat down. “What’s the first step?”
My book, Heretics to Heroes: A Memoir on Modern Leadership, is available in hardcopy, Kindle, and audiobook versions. Are you ready to go All-In?
Pictured above: Lieutenant Dan’s leadership style was to drift.