Picking Good Fights and Playing in the Traffic: My Thoughts on Leadership
Posted on November 3, 2017
I’ve long read Adam Bryant’s “CEO Corner” piece in the NY Times, a weekly interview with CEOs reflecting on leadership and their own practices. Last week, Bryant wrote the final column, a distillation of his favorite takeaways and reflections. For those interested in leadership, it’s worth the read.
I think about the topic quite often. I do so because I lead a large organization and want to be better at it. I do it too from some amount of imposter syndrome, trying to stay just ahead of that day when everyone figures out I really have no business doing this work. I also do it because I’m sometimes asked to talk about leadership and I want to go beyond the blinders of my own experience and reality.
I just did a video interview on leadership and innovation with Amanda Rogers at Velocity Hub. If interested, you can hear a bit more about how I think about the work (ignore the constant fluttering of my hands; I look like the mother in Long Days Journey Into Night).
Going back to the column, these are a few of the highlights that particularly resonated with me and some related reflections:
When it comes to values and mission, shorter is better. Our mission statement is pretty tight, but it mostly comes down to one thing: “We measure our success by the success of our students.” A visitor who spent two days with us this week commented to me that he was struck by how that mission permeates SNHU, from top to bottom. We do a lot of things as a University, but that simple sentence drives everything for us.
I like the “How do you hire?” question. Hiring is always a bet and every organization and leader searches for ways to make better bets. Bob Brennan, a leader at Iron Mountain, likes to ask: “What are the qualities you like least and most in your parents?” If I could only ask one question, this would be mine and it is echoes Brennan’s: “What did your parents do for work and what lessons did you learn from them that you carry into your work today?” It’s a question that often throws people and I think some infer that I’m really trying to seek out some signals about their socio-economic class or some other sub-text. What I really am listening for is how they talk about their parents’ work and work in general, what lessons they took from it, how thoughtful and vulnerable and open they are willing to be.
When candidates talk about humble roots and the work ethic they picked up from their parents, or the way their father or mother talked about taking care of people and treating them with dignity and kindness, I feel my heart warm. We had one candidate who was absolutely thrown by the question and clearly embarrassed that his father was a janitor and his mother was a waitress, almost apologizing for them. I knew he would not be a fit with us.
My parents were immigrants with eighth grade educations and I learned more from them than from anyone since. My parents worked harder than anyone I know. They were incredibly generous to anyone in need. They showed up when it mattered, at someone’s death bed, when someone was down and out, when someone needed a warm meal. They had high standards for the work they did, never cutting corners or settling for “good enough.” They treated everyone as valuable and placed more value on someone’s heart and actions than their title or income. They had not one iota of entitlement and had a high degree of forgiveness for human foibles.
When I think of my team, those are the things I value most in them: their work ethic, their care of others, their respect for others, and their humility. No one on my team has it handed to them – they earned their way. In Bryant’s column, note the story that Bill Green tells about the kid he recruited from Babson.
Finally, I like the final bit from Joseph Plumeri from First Data, which is essentially: Get In The Game. I love his quote: “…show up, get in the game, play in the traffic.” When I see people succeed in our organization, they are often the ones who jump in before being asked, who are eager to be part of a solution, who are willing to try new things. This is not about putting one’s hand up for a promotion or the next job – that is ass backwards. It’s get into the work, into the fray and trust that recognition will follow. In our industry more generally, I highly value the many people who think about higher education, comment on and critique what we do, and report on us. But my highest praise is reserved for those in the fray, working in institutions and trying new things, and failing and working to get it right next time. It’s why I like Teddy Roosevelt’s quote:
The credit belongs to the man [and today, woman] who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds, who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory or defeat.
In a recent meeting, Wil Zemp (a member of my team who knows firsthand what it means to be in the arena) said of our new refugee initiative: “We’ve picked a fight with one of the world’s toughest problems.” Yep. That’s what we do. And people like Chrystina Russell and Nina Weaver and Gabi Zolla, heading that effort, are willing to risk defeat because the stakes are so high and they are willing to take on a worthy cause. I can think of a hundred reasons not to take up this particularly fight, but that’s easy. Being clearheaded and taking up the fight anyway, that’s what matters.
There are thousands of books on the topic of leadership, but like so much in life, the essentials lie in the most basic core human values, the stuff we learned from our parents and grandparents. People need what SNHU does and we show up, play in the traffic, work hard, and do all we can to help. We’ll get it wrong sometimes (God knows I have), but we’re in the fight. Maybe that is the key to leadership – pick good fights on behalf of those who need your help.