What makes a leader great? There are as many answers to that question as there are great leaders. But I think at the heart of it you could argue that one word describes it best. Disease.
I know that sounds a bit odd, but stick with me, and I’ll explain what I mean, and how practicing this idea of disease can help us all become better leaders.
Same Song, Second Verse…
There’s well-worn trail between my den, where I write, and the kitchen, which is my source for coffee. Along that trail a guitar leans against a wall. Often as I pass between the two places, I pick up the guitar and play a few notes. Not for very long – usually just a minute or two – enough time for the microwave to heat up my caffeine fix.
Sometimes I’m a little self-conscious when I’m playing and someone else is around. I can play the songs well enough. The problem is that it’s the same couple of songs most of the time. My family is patient with me, but I’m sure they’re thinking, “He’s playing that again??”
The thing is, these songs are comfortable songs for me. I know them so well that they require no thought at all – the finger-style intro to Eric Clapton’s Lonely Stranger, is an example. There’s even some fancy fingering that looks harder than it really is.
Songs like that are satisfying to play, and allow me to feel that maybe I’ve gained some skill on the instrument. But the truth is that it’s the same songs over and over again. Playing them doesn’t make me a better player. I’ve become more of a one-trick pony.
Last weekend I thought I’d change that.
Learning to Learn
With a little more time on my hands, I sat down in front of the TV, pulled up some YouTube videos, and settled in with one on how to improvise a blues solo over a minor pentatonic scale.
I barely know what pentatonic means, and what followed most assuredly did not come naturally, or without thinking. It was painful: note by note, finger position by position, and then over and over again. First with individual chords, then later in combinations.
My dog retreated to a more distant room after the first few minutes.
Leaving my well-worn groove of familiar songs was uncomfortable, painstaking, and fraught with mistakes. It was a 13-minute video, but I’ve spent over an hour with it so far, and I’m better, but still far from making any claims of mastery.
It strikes me that learning leadership can be much like this.
Striking the Right Chord
My friend Wally Bock of Three Star Leadership wrote something that really resonated with me:
I think Wally’s right. Repeating the same thing is only helpful to the point that it becomes a skill. Once we’re comfortable with it, the learning tapers off.
The good news is that we have a new tool in the kit bag, and we can apply it when the conditions call for it.
But as the saying goes, if all you have is a hammer, everything tends to look like a nail. Or, in keeping with our music analogy, if Mrs. Mcgillicuddy asks us to play, and all we know is Highway to Hell, we risk getting a sternly worded missive from the lady’s auxiliary for ruining their ice cream social.
What has to come next is another stretch to discomfort. Until we can play ballads, polkas, and waltzes with the same ease that we can lay down some Jimi Hendrix, there is work yet to be done.
Just turning the amplifier volume knob up to 11 and playing the same song again is not the answer. People are going to leave the room.
And that brings me around to that comment about disease. What’s the connection?
Getting Comfortable with Disease
We all know a disease is “a disordered or incorrectly functioning organ, part, structure, or system of the body, etc, etc…” But I’m thinking of the 14th century origins of the word, where the root “ease,” meaning “comfort,” is modfied by “dis-” meaning “without, away.”
So it should be with us as leaders. If this leadership thing starts to seem easy, we should get suspicious. If we are at ease, we aren’t learning, and if we aren’t learning, we aren’t leading.
Hemingway once wrote something about writing that I think applies equally well to leadership:
The moment we begin to think ourselves masters is the time to worry the most.
It’s a bit of a Catch-22, but in learning leadership we have to see being free of dis-ease as unhealthy. It means we must be missing something; we aren’t learning, or aren’t pushing against the bounds of the comfortable to become better leaders than we were yesterday.
Learning Leadership – The Takeaway
There are lots of places where a little dis-ease is a good thing for us. Here are some questions we might ask ourselves that could lead to some healthy discomfort:
- Am I honestly living out the team’s values daily? Does the team see it?
- Do I really encourage different opinions and ideas? Really?
- Am I treating everyone around me with dignity and respect?
- Are we connected to the right people and organizations?
- Am I focused on avoiding the negative, or encouraging the positive?
- Do I know enough about this system to ask the right questions?
- If something goes wrong, is the backup plan ready?
- Does this action bring us closer to the vision?
- Who are our customers, and do we actually know what they think?
- If I miss work tomorrow, have I prepared my number two for success?
- Do I really understand my team’s point of view?
- Have I prepared my team to handle the unexpected?
- Is this really the best we can do?
If the honest answers to questions like these make us feel a little uncomfortable, that’s a good thing.
Now we know there’s a new song to learn, and it’s time to get to work.
In learning leadership, it’s the dis-ease that makes us healthy.
Interested in learning more about leadership? Check out Essential Leadership Skills for the New Manager. It will help you with your dis-ease.