Leading Leaders: Principle #3

Leading Leaders: Principle #3

Two vice-presidents of an organization were sitting at lunch talking about the need to find someone to fix a particular mess.  The first vice-president said, “I’m going to give you a name, and I want you to give me your impression.”  He gave the name and the second vice-president said, “Difficult…but top notch.”  The first vice-president hired the candidate because he knew that if he wanted a difficult job done, he would need a top- notch leader – even he was difficult.  The new hire not only cleaned up the mess, but his sector outperformed the rest of the division. He was indeed difficult, but the vice- president was a leader of leaders and could deal with difficult, but top notch people.

Principle #3: Leaders are difficult.  If you are going to lead leaders you are going to lead difficult people.

Marc was one of the most difficult, high maintenance high school kids I ever dealt with.  He challenged me constantly.  I had to justify my rationale for everything we did, and we went head to head over almost every decision.  At that point in my career I already had ten successful years of leadership work in two different areas, but this 16-year-old kid was questioning my every thought.  I tolerated him.  He was difficult, but I tolerated him; and I liked him.  I engaged him in the work, while enduring the struggles with him, because I knew he was a great leader.  This difficult kid was ultimately responsible for literally hundreds of other kids being involved and because of him we started an entirely new area and hired a new staff person.  It is no small thing to consider that one sixteen-year-old kid could be responsible for inspiring a $120,000 non-profit budget!
Marc was not only a leader; he was a leader of leaders.  He was difficult, but top notch.

Sometimes the very attributes that make a leader difficult are also the qualities that make him or her top-notch. 

•    Leaders challenge conventional thinking, and that can be annoying. Questioning the status quo can also lead to new ideas and keep an organization from becoming stale. 
•    Leaders have a high level of EQ (Emotional Intelligence), which causes some people to view them as intimidating. Their high EQ also gives them the strength to push through the difficult times and deal with the corporate midgets who can ruin a growth strategy.
•    Leaders have vision and see clear pictures of what the future can be and they will not simply dismiss their vision because it is not the same as someone else’s. Their ability to articulate vision is a key component of their ability to have others follow them.
•    Leaders have passion. Sometimes their passion is a fire that causes them to “burn out,” or even “burn others,” but their passion may also be a flame that keeps others from freezing to death, and is the heat that draws people to them.  I’ve heard it said, “When you’re on fire others will come, even if it’s just to see you burn.”
•    Great leaders can also be great followers – but they are not mindless sycophants.  They need to be treated with respect and must have buy-in with the vision they are being asked to follow.  When a great leader follows a great leader it is the most powerful of all combinations.
•    Difficult leaders know how to lead difficult leaders and they can surround themselves with a team of difficult, top-notch leaders.  A team of difficult leaders can be like herding cats, but it can also win championships; ask the Yankees and Red Sox.

One day I was sitting at my desk and Marc called.  It had been ten years since I had last heard from him and I was surprised to hear his voice coming through the phone. At that point he was running a successful IT consulting business in Colorado and volunteering with the same organization of which we had both been a part. He had some questions about the work and was looking for some advice.  We had chatted for about an hour when I asked, “So, which high school are you working with?” 
He said, “Columbine.”

When you work with leaders – the difficult, top-notch kind – you never know what the impact of your efforts will be.

Next month:
Principle #4:If you want to lead leaders you must first have a EQ (Emotional Intelligence) and be able to inspire other leaders to throw their leadership-lot in with you.

About the author / bobperkins

Latest comments

  • Kent
    November 14, 2007 at 1:40 pm Reply

    Leaders challenge convential thinking …
    I recommend Creative Destruction by Foster and Kaplan as a great source of insight into Bob’s first bullet point. These McKinsey consultants describe two types of thinking “convergent” and “divergent”. Convergent thinking is focused on the assumption of continuity, e.g. in the day to day administration and execution of previously arrived at strategic decisions. Divergent thinking is all about discontinuity and the asking of questions in the strategic decision making context (where leaders reside). Divergent thinkers focus as much on “careful observation of the facts” as the interpretation of them. Their skills include conversation, observation and reflection (sounds like EQ qualities). In any event, a good read for those interested in Bob’s current topic. Second half of book focuses on how putting divergent thinking to work in the form of “creative destruction” inside organizations (particularly large, publicly traded companies) helps to ensure longevity and success.

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