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Grow leaders -- not bosses

Many would argue that in large part our visionary leaders have gone missing, leaving us with bosses and bottom line managers at the helm of our organizations. If it’s true that great leaders are not born but made, how do we go about making them to fill this gap?

Warren Bennis, eminent scholar, author and father of leadership, who died this month at 89, made this topic a major part of his life’s work. He said, “The process of becoming a leader is similar, if not identical, to becoming a fully integrated human being.” Both are “grounded in self-discovery.” I’m not sure that any of us can achieve “fully integrated human being” status, but certainly those who spend a lifetime working towards it make better leaders.

What defines a great leader? Professor Bennis, who saw today’s leaders as too focused on extravagant compensation and quarter-to-quarter earnings, defines successful leaders as:

  • Having a guiding vision to accomplish their mission
  • Possessing the strength to persist in the face of setbacks or failure
  • Bringing their particular passion to the job or action
  • Communicating passion in a way that gives hope and inspiration to others
  • Having integrity
  • Thinking independently and with “contextual intelligence”
  • Understanding their flaws and assets and never lying to themselves about them
  • Showing others understanding, kindness and respect (not just toleration)
  • Being curious, daring and willing to take risks and try new things
  • Embracing errors as learning experiences
  • Making no room in their lives for hubris and arrogance

Success begins at the top. When leaders reach their full potential as human beings, their organizations are many times more likely to reach their full potential as well. Organizations led by a boss, especially an arrogant one, often achieve a level of success—that can’t be denied. But at what financial and human cost?

I have encountered so many great leaders in Colorado who exemplify what Professor Bennis described—punctuated by the high levels of success their organizations have achieved. I wish I could name them all. However, Ralph Christie, former CEO and now Chairman of Merrick & Co, and Steffie Allen, founder and Board Chair Emeritus of the Women’s Vision Foundation, are certainly two of those leaders.

Ralph Christie led employee-owned Merrick as CEO for more than a decade, stepping down in 2013. He believes that employee ownership made them more entrepreneurial and willing to take risks. “There’s more to life than work” is more than a motto at Merrick, it’s the foundation for their culture that encompasses flexible work schedules, a family-friendly environment, and perks like employee ski days. Merrick & Co is consistently recognized as a top U.S. design firm and “best place to work.” It’s not surprising that turnover is low and the company maintains a nearly 90 percent retention rate each year. It’s also not surprising that people, including me, find Ralph Christie to be a strong and thoughtful leader who treats everyone with the same respect and kindness.

Steffie Allen’s leadership abilities seem to have no limits. She is a former corporate executive, member of numerous boards of directors, major education fundraiser, and author in addition to founding the 3,500-member Women’s Vision Foundation and consulting firm The Athena Group. Warren Bennis would have certainly agreed with her gems of advice, which she both leads by and shares with others. Among them are:

  • Being a leader is not about “me,” it is about “we.”
  • You are a gift, but if you don’t unwrap yourself then no one will know what you are.
  • Seek out allies. Serve other people’s needs. Be a connector.
  • Work/life balance is a myth. Seek harmony. You have a right to your own life.
  • Find a platform that will get you out into the community.
  • Listen to your stomach–follow your intuition.

Self-discovery is a lifelong process that can take you to unimaginable heights of feeling and understanding—without which you can never become a great leader. It takes enormous courage and commitment to look honestly at yourself and make concerted efforts to change your ways where necessary. You have to work at it every day. I don’t know about you, but that’s the only kind of leader I’d follow. Let the others be bosses in some other place.

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Kathleen Quinn Votaw

Kathleen Quinn Votaw serves on the Board of Directors for both the Association for Corporate Growth (ACG) Denver and Colorado Companies to Watch. She is also founder and CEO of TalenTrust, a Denver-based professional services firm that helps high growth companies solve the people puzzle.TalenTrust offers strategies to attract, retain and engage talented people. Reach Kathleen at kvotaw@talentrust.com or 303-838-3334.

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