Athena, the goddess of wisdom and strategy, emerged fully formed from the head of Zeus—if you believe Greek mythology, anyhow. As the myth was told, Zeus, suffering from a terrific headache, called not for an aspirin—yet to be invented—but for a splitting tool to open his skull and ease his pain. As the blow was struck, Athena was released, armed for battle in all her glory. She would make her mark in Greek myths as the wise advisor to Odysseus, the brains behind the giant, tantalizing Trojan gift horse. Homer also told of her embodying Mentor, the older man Odysseus retained to tutor the young prince, Telemachus, during his long years of absence from home. Ironically, while this story of Athena’s full-grown birthing might bring smiles to us moderns, it’s not that far removed from the latter-day myths that we believe about leaders and how they are grown today.
Here is a short test that might help us come to terms with our own myths. Take up your pencils; no peeking ahead. True or false?
- Leaders are born, not made.
- Leaders develop primarily through exceptional classroom training, often using case studies.
- The best people to develop leaders are either business school professors or popular consultants who write books about the best practices of the great companies.
Time. Please put your pencils down. What do you think?
As it turns out, each of these statements is a widely-held myth about how leaders come forth. Over years of leadership teaching and consulting (yes, sometimes in classrooms), I keep running into these three myths about how promising employees become older, wiser, and better leaders of others. Sometimes these myths are voiced; more often they simply reflect what is commonly practiced in growing the next generation. Let’s then begin with some truths instead.
Most organizations assume they can identify an up-and-coming leader straight out of business or graduate school or from the ranks of the neophyte fire-eaters who ace their first projects. They subsequently select them for a special training program for future leaders and believe their young protÃ©gÃ©s are launched on a course of success. From time to time they send them to advanced leadership training to prepare for the next level. These precocious ones obviously are becoming great leaders, and because their early leadership assignments are so outstanding, their fast tracking is confirmed. One of them may even become the CEO or the Director or the Bishop, thereby validating this mythology. And peace and a good harvest in Greece meant Athena succeeded as protector of the realm.
But if we looked ahead, we’d likely find a few holes in that plot. First, we’d discover that some of these high flyers go so high they plunge back downward somewhere along the way. Research bears this out. Second, we’d find that if we talked privately and anonymously to the people who’ve reported to these latter-day Athenas over the years, we’d find that perhaps many of them are hard to work for—impatient, self-centered, aloof, maybe even arrogant and vindictive. A few make it to the top. Yet there are also those who reach these heights, only to go down in flames—just read the news. Whether it is business, government, non-profits, or the church, the leadership story does not vary all that much in the telling. The truth is this: what we commonly practice in preparing leaders is not working very well.
So, Where Have All the Leaders Gone?
If you have been paying attention to national and international events these last few years, you have heard a refrain that sounds akin to Bob Dylan’s wailing voice from the Vietnam War protests: “Where have all the flowers gone?” Exchange “flowers” for “leaders” and you’d have the songs authors, journalists, columnists, and pundits have been singing to our era; it’s the refrain the men and women on the street have now picked up, at least according to polls. We have little confidence in our leaders in any sector, save perhaps the military.
For example, take two recent commentaries on this yawning gap. Tom Friedman and David Brooks, both widely noted authors and commentators for the U.S. paper of record—The New York Times—have highlighted this crisis. Friedman finds today’s prominent leaders motivated by “situational values,” not “sustainable values.” The difference? One type fixates on the short-term situation and its personal impact; the other focuses on the long-term common good, seeking to serve others and the future, willing to take personal risk. Brooks says much the same, but he uses the metaphor of the “humble hound,” the persistent, self-effacing, purpose-driven leader, as his missing breed. Both men look in vain for the successors to those who launched great nations, held them together under inexorable pressures, solved vexing human tragedies, and kept Western civilization intact during its darkest days. William Wilberforce, Vaclev Havel, Mother Theresa, George Washington, Nelson Mandela, and Abraham Lincoln come readily to mind. People followed them and would again because of their tempered-by-fire character and their unselfish commitment. In essence, both pundits conclude we don’t have enough “servant leaders” who embody Jesus’ teaching (and Plato’s). Where, indeed, have they gone?
Learning to Ride a Bicycle
Let’s use a different slant to answer that conundrum: how we get bike riders. First, the neophyte is put onto the bicycle, eager, scared, and clueless for the most part. By a combination of patience, persistence, and an experienced practitioner alongside, the new rider acquires tenuous balance, followed by turning corners, stopping and starting, and then soloing gradually. The elder alongside is critical to encourage, teach, and most of all, remain there—and then know when to let go gradually, even allowing the painful falls. Some remedial reviews and more time on the seat allow for progress until finally it becomes second nature. One day the protÃ©gÃ© rides the bike with all the skill and wisdom of the tutor, perhaps even more, and later teaches someone else to ride. This is tacit knowledge, distinct from cognition. No amount of classroom instruction, reading books, or watching videos of Lance Armstrong or Steve Bauer will move the aspiring rider toward mastering the art of cycling. Yet, for the most part, this is precisely how we expect the knowledge gained by experienced, wise leaders to be passed on to the next generation. The tendency has been to act as if the myths embodied in our three-question test were true.
The Curriculum of Experience
Some may find it surprising that the curriculum that produces a true leader has been around for some time. Long-term research, particularly by The Center for Creative Leadership, crisply summarized in The Lessons of Experience (Free Press, 1988) has been supplemented by later work such as Dan Goleman’s Primal Leadership (Harvard Business Press, 2004). That the critical components in developing such elusive leadership components as character, emotional intelligence, strategic thinking and vision casting are not gained primarily in a classroom is well established. In fact, the three critical methods in this curriculum are primarily experiential and date back into antiquity. Aspiring leaders of greatness learn to lead in the same way that budding bike riders do—just the way that violin makers, sculptors, and swordsmen have learned for many centuries before ours.
Much of our modern practice—seat time spent curing in an office cubicle like a side of bacon, injected periodically with training—is eschewed. Rather, the three-part leader course begins with time spent in several challenging, and varied testing experiences. Aspiring leaders further need opportunities for observing leadership in action during the normal course of their days, watching how senior leaders go about their craft using the human and organizational skills that embody wisdom and tested character. Finally, hardships form the last component of the curriculum. The early failure of young George Washington at the gates of Fort Necessity, or Nelson Mandela’s long imprisonment before becoming Prime Minister, or William Wilberforce’s ignominious failures to pass the slave trade bill: these are the places where humility, persistence, and self awareness—often overlooked qualities in leaders—are formed.
The deeper knowledge, as Aslan would say, is not gained from bestselling books, high priced seminars, or pithy plaques. Nor is it best conveyed by professors, consultants, or motivational speakers. Rather, tacit leadership knowledge is conveyed by goodly masters of the art—people who are rare in our era.
Leaders Grow Leaders
At the end of the day, it is leaders who grow leaders: not just someone with the title, but leaders of high character and with a deeply held core purpose who intentionally and patiently give back their hard-earned wisdom. The best conveyers of truth are those leaders who are formed over time in the crucible tests of power. They are those with the commitment as well as the knowledge, opportunity, and capacity to grow the next generation of leaders conveying their lessons of experience—tacitly. Long-time leadership advisor Warren Bennis calls our time one of a “leadership crisis.” Our solution is quite plainly not to keep digging the same hole but to engage the men and women who understand what Abraham Lincoln meant over seven score years ago: “Nearly all men can stand the test of adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” That is the crucible, jointly entered into, from which the best leaders emerge—not from the head of Zeus.
Those who come alongside young leaders to steady them, advise them, and remain with them during their first tentative ventures and beyond have passed Lincoln’s test; ultimately, they incarnate irreplaceable roles in developing leaders. Having interviewed those who have worked many years for good people like this, I found they played four key and very consistent roles. They have been mentors to aspirants, flanking them during life’s many tests; coaches alongside them on the playing fields of vocation; teachers telling them the stories from their own lessons—successes and failures; and exemplars, an enfleshed leadership presence that inhabits their stories. These are the leaders who grow leaders every day. We need more of them.
Max De Pree both practiced this and taught others to do so, sharing his wonderful, distilled life lessons in Leadership is an Art (Dell, 1990). While management is more science, he recognized that leadership is mostly art. And how did De Pree gain these lessons? His wisdom was a matter of experience, mediated through the examples and lessons that his father and then his older brother had ingrained in him as he walked alongside in the leadership atmosphere they created for Herman Miller’s lasting world-class office furniture enterprise.
To learn an art, an apprentice’s lessons come from being with a master, one who has walked a long road themselves in becoming an “elder at the gate,” emerging with wisdom and with character intact. Such leadership is resistant when power beckons with easy sex, easy money, or easy exploitation of others. These qualities are learned from those who have learned their trade in multiple, varied tests and can best help channel their protÃ©gÃ©s’ experiences and leaven their lessons with reflections on truths. They are best experienced “over the shoulder and through the heart,” as my good friend Steve Garber often observes. In essence, it takes a servant leader to grow other servant leaders because their “classroom” is the gift of their own time and experience invested in the lives of others to mentor, to teach, to coach, and to simply be with them as they gradually gain their footing as humble hounds.
As with many things in a well-lived life, it all comes down to a choice: in this case, how leaders spend their time on earth, giving up their most non-renewable resource on behalf of others. It is what exemplary senior leaders in every walk of life must come to see as their calling in these times when we desperately need leaders who serve others, embodying sustainable core values and steel-hard beliefs that endure the tests of power and prestige. We will not grow these kinds of leaders unless our own best leaders understand that those young people with the promise of leadership deep within them are going to leadership school every day they walk in the door anyway. They watch, they listen, and they mimic, absorbing the beliefs and examples of the leadership culture that surrounds them.
At life’s end, it is a far better enterprise to have invested oneself in the lives of others intentionally and wisely. To leave a legacy that will outlive any job title, successful project, or 401(k), those at the top that best embody servant leadership must necessarily give of themselves to those coming behind. A leader who grows the next generation of leaders is a leader who, as Jesus said, serves rather than being served. Not a bad epitaph if you think about it. And that’s no myth.