Step beyond the walls of the facility for a look at leadership outside the fitness industry.
In 1964, as Winston Churchill’s health was rapidly declining, former President and World War II General Dwight D. Eisenhower went to visit his friend. Eisenhower sat by the former prime minister’s bed for a lengthy period of time. Neither man spoke. After a while, Churchill slowly raised his hand and painstakingly made the V for victory sign, which he was well known for, often flashing it to the British people during the darkest days of World War II. Eisenhower, fighting back tears, stood up from his chair, saluted Churchill and left the room. Composing himself, Eisenhower spoke to his aide in the hallway, saying: “I just said goodbye to Winston, but you never say farewell to courage.”
Mention the word leader or leadership, and images of individuals like Churchill and Eisenhower quickly emerge. Many people erroneously believe that leaders are born and that others are destined to simply admire and follow them. The truth is that anyone can learn to lead. If you want to be a leader or become a more effective one, then here are 10 leadership “secrets” you must know.
Whether they are receptionists or chief executive officers (CEOs), people who lead take charge. They understand that they have the power to impact situations and influence people. Mark Sanborn, author of You Don’t Need a Title to Be a Leader (Currency 2006) makes this clear through a personal experience. Several years ago, he received disappointing service from his insurance broker. It was serious enough for him to escalate his complaint to a higher level. There, his concerns were completely disregarded. Offended, he vowed to take his business elsewhere. However, because he had numerous policies and because it would take considerable time to change insurance carriers, he didn’t get around to it. Some time later he needed to file a claim and was forced to contact the insurance company again. The customer service clerk who had previously spoken with Sanborn was gone, and a new agent received his call. Politely but clearly, Sanborn said: “Look, you can tell from my records that my experiences with your firm haven’t been good. If it weren’t for the hassle of switching policies in effect, I’d take all my business elsewhere and never do business with your company again. It isn’t anything personal. This is the first time you and I have spoken. But you need to know where I’m coming from.” Her response surprised and delighted him: “Mr. Sanborn,” she said. “I don’t know all that happened to you, but I can understand you are upset about your past dealings with us. I can’t control what happened in the past, but I assure you of this: if you continue to do business with us, I will personally assist you and make sure that nothing like that happens again.” That conversation took place several years ago. Sanborn’s insurance policies came up for renewal, but he never left that broker because of the personal leadership demonstrated by this agent.
“The willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life is the source from which self-respect springs,” observed novelist Joan Didion. Accepting responsibility for his words and actions is one reason why General Eisenhower was a beloved and effective leader. During World War II, Eisenhower and his aides planned the D-Day invasion of Normandy, France. The final approval had to be given by Eisenhower alone. This was a difficult moment for him because he knew that the invasion would likely result in the deaths of many soldiers. However, he also understood that if it succeeded, the Allies would have a huge advantage over Germany. In his book American Scandal (Destiny Image Publishers 2005), Pat Williams writes that in the hours prior to the invasion, Eisenhower prepared a handwritten press release that he ordered be given to reporters in the event of the assault’s failure. His statement read: “Our landings have failed . . . and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and this place was based upon the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt, it is mine alone.”
A man was approaching retirement, so he set three goals for his future. He wanted to play more golf; he wanted to travel more; and he wanted to spend more time with his grandchildren. It was a solid plan except he didn’t have any grandchildren. He had four adult children, all married, but none of them had children. When they were all together over Thanksgiving dinner, he told them, “I’m retiring soon, and I have three goals for my retirement which I want to share with you. I want to play more golf, travel more and spend more time with my grandchildren.” He continued: “As you know, I don’t have any grandchildren. So today I’m announcing that I’ve established a $1 million trust fund that will be given to the first couple who blesses me with a grandchild. Now, let’s bow our heads and thank our creator for this bountiful Thanksgiving dinner.” When he opened his eyes after saying the prayer, the room was empty! Leaders know how to motivate.
Much of the power associated with leaders comes from their enthusiastic approach. After receiving the Nobel Prize, Scottish physicist Sir Edward V. Appleton said, “I rate enthusiasm even above professional skill.” Businessman Charles M. Schwab concurred, saying, “A person can succeed at anything for which there is enthusiasm.” Similarly, Henry Ford often said, “Enthusiasm is the yeast that makes your hope rise to the stars . . . the sparkle in your eye . . . the swing in your gait, the grip in your hand, the irresistible surge of your will, and your energy to execute your ideas. Enthusiasts are fighters. They have fortitude. They have staying qualities.”
Rather than being rigid and hard, those who lead effectively know how to bend and exercise flexibility with people and with circumstances. Mark Sanborn tells of picking up a coffee at Starbucks and then heading over to a nearby deli for breakfast. Once inside, the hostess sternly told him, “We don’t allow outside food or beverages in the restaurant. You’ll either have to down it or leave it at the counter.” Irritated by her rebuke, he left and has never returned. Troubled by that encounter, he called his brother, who is a successful restaurant owner. Explaining what happened, he asked his brother’s opinion. The brother offered this simple solution: “She should have said, ‘We don’t allow outside food or beverages, so let me pour your drink into one of our cups after I seat you.’ No competitor’s coffee cup would be on the table, you would keep your beverage, and they would get to keep the money you spent on breakfast.”
They are not easily discouraged. And even when they are, leaders continue on. Unlike many others, leaders are able to hunker down and persevere through tough times. They understand that life’s rewards are released to those who persevere. In his book Become Who You Were Born to Be (Paragon Holdings 2005) Brian Souza writes: “Persistence is the linchpin for many of the other components of success. We might have passion, for instance, but if we lack perseverance, where will passion take us? We might have goals, but without persistence they will remain elusive.” This quality was an important aspect of heavyweight champion boxer Muhammad Ali’s success in the ring. He asserted: “Champions aren’t made in the gyms. Champions are made from something they have deep inside them—a desire, a dream, a vision. They have to have last-minute stamina; they have to be a little faster; they have to have the skill, and the will. But the will must be stronger than the skill.”
Leaders know problems cannot be avoided. To be alive means having problems. How leaders differ from nonleaders is in their approach. Leaders do not run away, nor do they avoid problems. Rather, they view obstacles as opportunities in disguise. Consider this situation of a man in the late 19th century whose small shop was struggling financially. He tells his story this way: “I was paying a sheriff $5 a day to postpone a judgment on my small factory. Then came the gas man, and because I could not pay his bill promptly, he cut off my gas. I was in the midst of certain very important experiments, and to have the gas people plunge me into darkness made me so mad that I at once began to read up on gas technique and economics, and resolved I would try to see if electricity couldn’t be made to replace gas and give those gas people a run for their money.” That man was Thomas A. Edison, founder of the company which has come to be known as General Electric. Leaders like Edison use problems as emotional stimulants to seek creative solutions.
James Belasco is a business consultant and professor of management at San Diego State University. He tells of being with the CEO of a “very large company.” The two were walking across the carefully manicured company campus when they encountered a maintenance supervisor shouting at a groundskeeper. The CEO stopped, and he waited until the supervisor finished his tirade and was about to walk away. “Got a minute, John?” he called out. Slightly embarrassed, the supervisor approached the CEO, who asked: “John, would you talk to your mother that way?” “Of course not,” the supervisor replied, “but if I don’t make the point strong enough, this guy just won’t pay attention. Besides, this is a business and we’ve got to get the work done.” Gently the CEO urged John to think about other ways to get the employee’s attention. As the CEO and Belasco walked away, the CEO shook his head and said sadly: “I keep talking about our need to bring people together. It’ll never work as long as supervisors like John keep treating people like third-class citizens.”
Leaders appreciate the wisdom of these words from the ancient Greek historian and essayist Plutarch: “Know how to listen and you will profit, even from those who talk badly.” People who lead listen carefully because they know good ideas can come from surprising voices. Several decades ago the owners of the elegant El Cortez Hotel in San Diego decided they needed additional elevators. They met with architects and engineers to scope out the best location, appearance and cost. If they put the elevators inside the hotel, they would have to cut a hole in all the floors. That would be time-consuming, messy and inconvenient to hotel guests. As the planners stood in the lobby discussing placement of these elevators, a janitor overheard the conversation. All he could think about was the mess the hotel would be in while this reconstruction was taking place.
After reflecting on the matter, he finally summoned the courage to address the group of professionals. The janitor suggested: “Why don’t you put the elevators outside the building.” No one had thought of that. In fact, no one in the group knew of a hotel with elevators on the outside of the building. So, they made plans and the El Cortez Hotel became the first in the United States to have elevators built outside the building.
Because our times are complex and rapidly changing, effective leaders work with other people, tapping into their experience, knowledge and energy. In her book The Tao of Personal Leadership (Collins 1997), Diane Dreher observes: “Today’s leader is not someone who knows all the answers, because in this world that is impossible. He or she is not someone who makes decisions and gives orders in the old military model of leadership. Rather, the new leader is someone who can assess a situation, bring people together, build consensus and discover solutions, drawing on the talents of everyone involved. The new leader is a facilitator, a communicator, a team builder who realizes that our greatest natural resources are our minds and hearts, together with those of the people around us.”