I don’t think many of us start out by saying, “I am going to be a leader of people.” We just end up there through circumstance. I would love to believe that we are born to be leaders but in reality, I think sometimes life just molds us until we are. If you asked my mom what she thought I would grow up to be, she would likely have answered, “He won’t get to adulthood if he keeps behaving the way he does.” If pushed, she probably would have said a clown. I think my nature was to amuse and overcome my inadequacies through humor. Nothing has changed, except I have learned a bit along the way.
Lessons from My Mom
I was once climbing a fruit tree in the garden when I slipped and fell onto a wall that had security barbs sticking out of it. I limped into the house covered in blood and torn clothing and a tad upset. I immediately received a smack before being dragged to the bathroom for ruining repairs. Lessons:
- Take guidance from your managers (I had been told not to climb the tree).
- Sometimes leaders’ angry reactions are out of fear and concern for you.
- Even when you disappoint, leaders often still help repair the damage
- Even though you have messed up, best you filter the issue up in order to get it fixed.
Lessons from the Army
In South Africa, where I grew up, we had two years compulsory military service. I certainly learned a few lessons there about leadership. I remember one of the members of my troop received a letter from home that appeared to upset him. As we sat around at lunch, I remember him telling his friends he had received what we called a “dear Johnny” letter from his girlfriend telling him she had found someone else. Everyone joked with him about it and he also made some funny remarks. It was not an uncommon occurrence. I remember feeling that something wasn’t right, but as a 19-year-old young man, I just left it. I was woken from my sleep at about 2:30 a.m. by our group commander. I was deputy leader of the troop and was told to report down stairs. The leader of the troop and I were taken with a bucket and mop and told to clean up the blood of the same member of our group who had shot himself while on patrol that evening.
- Really listen when people talk. What they say is important.
- People are different and you can’t treat them all the same. Create an environment where individuals can prosper regardless of their individuality.
- If you feel something, act on it. If you’re wrong, it does less harm than if you do nothing.
- Plan for the worst, hope for the best. I am the extreme optimist and have to remind myself to do this.
- You are always on duty. It costs very little to just show you care.
Lessons from Sports
I was once picked to play in a celebration rugby game, in which the opposition had a retired player whose claim to fame was that had been the heaviest player ever to play at an elite level. He was close to 40 years old at the time and I was 22. As we lined up to run onto the field, he looked down at me and said he would run right over the top of me during the game. Not wishing to take a backward step, I replied that I would run around him but given he had grown somewhat since his retirement the field wasn’t wide enough. I woke up in the hospital and needed surgery to repair my nose.
- Learn when to listen, when to ignore, and when to react.
- If you want to take on a giant, best be prepared—for both the best and the worst.
- Even in adversity, there are benefits. I now have a lovely straight nose.
Lessons from Selflessness
I was living in England through the 1980s and early 1990s. I was playing sports, teaching a bit and running the school’s sports complexes. It was a good life and one that afforded me plenty of free time, travel, and a fun lifestyle. I got a phone call from my dad telling me he had to go for an operation followed by one from my mom two days later saying he had terminal cancer and six months to live. I packed my bags and went home. I went from living a great life doing what I loved, to one selling cardboard boxes for a living. My dad lived for 17 months and I am glad I got to spend those with him.
- Always do the right thing, not the easy thing.
- People are really what matter.
- Giving is so much better than receiving.
- There is always an upside (I found my amazing wife while there).
Lessons from the Cardboard Factory
I spent much of my time traveling between small cities and factories selling cardboard boxes. I called on a client who made T-shirts—a lady from Taiwan. I had called on her several times. She was always pleasant, showed me the factory, and told me about her husband back in Taiwan and her childhood. One day after my seventh visit, she asked me, “What is it that you want?” I had told her about our amazing factory, our service, and our great people. I had told her about my life, why I was back in South Africa and many other tales. I said, “I just want an order for cardboard boxes.” She opened the drawer of her desk took out a wad of orders, crossed out our opposition company’s name, and wrote down mine and handed me the biggest order I had ever taken in my life.
- Ask for what you want.
- Relationships are what really matter.
- People buy and do business with people.
- Face to face interactions really matter.
Leaders are not born, they become. People matter. Loyalty, motivation, and trust come from relationships. Leaders listen more than they talk and care more than the rest. Leaders are themselves and comfortable with being just that. Leaders learn from those who come before them and ponder life’s lessons. Leaders are important but not as important as those they lead. FM