It has been the “accidental teachers” in my life who have passed on some of the most transformative lessons.
The education they’ve given me has been invaluable, not just in terms of the leadership lessons they’ve taught, but in the realization that much of our leadership comes when we ourselves play the role of accidental teachers.
Since we never know when that might be, it’s wise to live as we’d like to be seen. This month I want to share another story from a train trip that changed my life.
Albert and Camille
“35 years he worked to get away from the office, and now he can’t stop talking about it,” Camille said in a mock angry tone.
I was sitting in the lounge car of a VIA train bound for Vancouver, having a drink with Camille and her husband Albert. The three of us were sharing the same experience: a cross-Canada train trip. However, while I had found a way to make it happen at the age of 32, Albert and Camille had been putting it off for almost that many years.
Albert had started his own Public Relations company in his late 20s, and building, growing, and maintaining it had eaten up more than three decades. They hadn’t wasted any time after his retirement however – less than a week had passed since his final day at the office, and they were already three days into their long-awaited trip.
Fresh off a chance encounter the day before, which had left me committed to connecting with as many new people as I could on the trip, I had struck up a conversation. It wasn’t long before Albert was sharing stories of his time as President and CEO, and before we knew it, two hours had flown by, eventually prompting Camille’s gentle reminder that perhaps a change of subject was in order.
“Alright, alright!” I laughed. “One more question, and then nothing more about work.”
Camille shot me a fake stinkeye, then nodded her agreement with a poorly concealed smile.
“What’s the most important leadership lesson you took away from all of those years?” I asked Albert.
“I learned the ‘two days of leadership’” he said.
My quizzical look led him to explain.
“I worked for 35 years in PR,” he said. “And I came to realize that sometimes it was about building a brand, and sometimes it was about saving a brand. When you’re building a brand you have a plan, and for the most part, you’re in control of how and when it’s executed. But there’s always a crisis eventually. Someone does or says something stupid, or something fails that wasn’t supposed to, or any one of a million things goes wrong, and you’re thrown into damage control mode. And you can plan the best you can for those moments, but control is rarely in your hands once they start unfolding.”
“Leadership is the same way,” he continued. “I came to think of it as the ‘two days of leadership’: one-day leadership…and next-day leadership.”
“What’s the difference?” I asked.
“’One-day’ leadership is strategic leadership,” he said. “It’s the creation of the plan for where you want to be ‘one-day’, the identification of when you want that day to come, and the creation of the plan to take you there.”
“So it’s your vision and mission,” I chimed in.
“Yes, plus the strategic objectives, timelines, measures and targets you create to take you there,” he said with a nod. “’Next-day leadership’, on the other hand, arises in those times when crises necessitates simplification. It means you have to assess a lot of information in a short time, quickly sift through and discard the non-essential to get to the essential. It means that sometimes you must let go of the hope of achieving ‘the best’ in favour of ‘the best we can do at present’”.
“Every successful organization and individual is good at ‘next-day leadership’,” he continued. “And the fact is you can get very, very good at dealing with things that way. So good, in fact, that you can make it your default method of dealing with everything, and that’s when organizations get themselves in trouble. ‘Next-day’ leadership can’t become your norm. ‘Fast and simple’ can’t be your default position, no matter how effective you are at it. If you allow it to be your first option, all you ever focus on is ‘getting through’ until tomorrow…and when tomorrow comes, it’s all about ‘cleaning up’ the quick fixes and the ruffled feathers from yesterday.”
Wanting to keep my promise to Camille, I thanked Albert and returned to my sleeper, his idea of the ‘days of leadership’ bouncing around my head. I realized he was right: we become proud of our ability to boil down, strip away, cut down and “get it done” when crises call for it. However, seeing how effective it is, we sometimes do it even in the absence of a crisis. We begin to lead on a “need to know only” basis: “just tell me what we have to know to get through this, I don’t have time to deal with anything else.”
But you can’t lead on a “need to know only” basis. You can fix things, you can maintain, but you can’t lead. For it’s the things you boil and cut away during “next day” leadership that can give you the information needed for long-term positive change, the creation of which is what leadership is all about. If you cut them away every time, not just when crisis dictates, you’re dooming yourself to an endless cycle of crises, and very little growth.
“Next-day” leadership is a crucial skill, but it’s essential to check in every now and then to ensure we haven’t let it become our default position. That we haven’t convinced ourselves, the best strategy is to use it every day to avoid potential crises instead of only when a crises calls for it.
However, I couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something missing from his framework. An understanding of the power of “everyday leadership”. The next day at lunch, I sat down and shared a story with him (see video below) that had helped me come to see leadership as defined, not by money and titles, but by the degree to which you strove to have a positive impact on your own life and on the lives of others every day. I asked him if he thought it was possible to incorporate that concept of leadership into a business world that was sometimes all about that bottom line, and could often be cutthroat.
“Absolutely,” he replied. “I think the key to real productivity is making clear to others that you want to have a positive impact on their lives and that you’re willing to work to do so.”
He said, “Most of my staff weren’t trying to TAKE my job, but they did want to GET my job one day. I didn’t see that as a threat. Maybe I’m crazy, but I think the best thing I did for my company was try to let everyone who worked for me know I cared about their development the same way I cared about my own. I didn’t want an environment where I had a bunch of people who would ‘one day’ be able to take over for me, I wanted one where I knew I had a bunch of people who could take over for me tomorrow. Because one day that was going to be the reality.”
Be a Catalyst
I believe a key facet of leadership is figuring out how to send that message every day: that you’re as interested in the development of the people around you as you are your own. It’s not enough to just not be an obstacle to their development. It’s not even enough to be supportive when you see opportunities to help them. You have to be a catalyst for creating those opportunities.
I see all kinds of books and see all kinds of speakers on how to build better teams. In my life, I’ve found that takes care of itself if you make it a mission to help make better team members and better team mates. Forget power, influence and control: if you can make people feel like they’re better when you’re around, they will follow you anywhere.
Perhaps we spend too much time evaluating our own and others’ leadership based on “extraordinary” days: Days where a crises must be solved (“next day”) or at the end of a major accomplishment (“one day”). I would argue the frequency of those extraordinary days is determined by the leadership that occurs on the days in between…the “every days”. It is on those days the character of our teams and organizations are shaped. Where eventual crises are born or averted; and where long term success is fostered or stifled.
Truly transformative leaders create environments where what is valued is individual potential and relationships, where the creation of transformative moments is likely because the people who make up the environment consistently strive to act in a way that makes it more likely they will have a positive impact on their own lives and the lives of others.
It’s Your Turn
What accidental teachers have you learned from? Take a minute and comment. Thanks!