3 Principles to Developing Yourself as a Leader

Contributor:  William Cohen, Ph.D.
Posted:  09/20/2010  12:00:00 AM EDT
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Drucker was once a serious musician and he studied music composition under a famous Austrian composer, Anton Webern. Drucker knew that he was progressing pretty well, but as a result he got carried away with his success and wanted to compose what are known as “variations” at the same level as his instructor. His teacher chided him. “Peter, it took a genius like Joseph Haydn thirty years to attain the level to try what you propose. You will never be a Haydn, yet you want to do this though you have been at it less than 30 days.”

After a year of work, he allowed Drucker to try a single, simple variation, cautioning him to be careful. Proudly Drucker presented the product of his work. After examining his composition his instructor announced, “I was wrong . . . you aren’t ready yet.” “He was right,” Drucker later admitted. Drucker was good enough, even after this failure, that he almost continued on to become a professional musician. However, as we know, he took another track. It too involved failure at first.

Principle One: Expect Failure at First, but Keep at It

Drucker failed at more than just music. He accurately predicted many major developments over his lifetime. These included the rise of healthcare management, the future of Internet education for executives, Japan’s rise as an economic world power, the decisive importance of marketing and innovation for any business, the emergence of the knowledge worker, the current financial challenges and more. Yet Drucker failed in his first major public prediction. Two weeks before “Black Tuesday” when the stock market plunged and the Great Depression began on October 29th, 1929, he wrote a newspaper column in which he predicted continual expansion of the market for the next decade.

Many Fail and Stop; a Minority Try Again and Become Successful

A would-be entrepreneur by the name of Macy tried valiantly to master the intricacies and demands of founding and developing a retail store. He failed. He tried several more times. He failed again and again. It was only his last attempt which led not only to success, but to great success. Today, Macy’s has something like 180,000 employees and 800 stores in the U.S. alone.

Many others had failures as they developed themselves as leaders. As a junior engineer at GE, Jack Welch, later named “Manager of the Century” by Fortune Magazine, was almost fired. He had failed by mismanaging a project which blew the roof off a building. General Hoyt S. Vandenberg, the second Chief of Staff of the Air Force, and one of its most outstanding World War II leaders was almost dismissed from West Point for lack of leadership aptitude after his first year as a cadet. Warren Buffett is a wildly successful investor and industrialist who is consistently ranked as one of the wealthiest men in the world. His first independent investment was a Sinclair Texaco gas station. It went bankrupt.

Our Two Greatest Presidents Had Initial Failures

Ask anyone who our two greatest presidents were, and they will probably tell you these were our first and 16th presidents: George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. They were both also failures. George Washington began his military career as a young military officer by surrendering his first command during the French and Indian War. Twenty-five years later he went on to win American Independence as General-in-Chief of the Continental Army fighting for Independence against the well-trained army of the major superpower of the day, Great Britain.

As a young man Abraham Lincoln decided to get into politics. He ran for the Illinois General Assembly with a number of advantages. He was a war hero having served as a captain in the Black Hawk War, was an amateur wrestler, and with an imposing stature of 6 feet 4 inches it was said that he was tall and "strong enough to intimidate any rival." His townspeople liked and respected him. Also Lincoln thought he had a good chance because in the Illinois system the top four on the ballot were all sent to the Assembly. Despite all this, after the votes were counted, Lincoln ranked eighth. This didn’t stop him from being elected President and both saving the Union and abolishing slavery 30 years later.

All this verifies Principle One. A failure does not necessarily mean the end of the road for one seeking to develop himself or herself in anything, and certainly not as a leader.

Principle Two: Volunteer, Make Mistakes, and Learn Leadership

Drucker had a strong belief about what could be learned from volunteer organizations. He even recommended that all paid employees in corporations be treated as if they were unpaid volunteers who could leave whenever they wished. Although this is less true during a recession, the Los Angeles Times reported recently that some employees were voluntarily leaving their jobs due to dissatisfaction with their treatment despite an unemployment rate in California exceeding 10%.

The fact that there are so many volunteer, unpaid jobs available means that anyone who wants an unpaid job can find one or more leadership positions in which to gain experience and to develop themselves as leaders, and not just in volunteer organizations, but in every company as well.

A certain company conducted savings bond drives every year. No one wanted the job of persuading other employees to sign up for additional bond deductions from their paychecks. Most “volunteers” accepted the job only under pressure, and none did very well at convincing people to make additional bond investments. Yet as any leader will tell you, persuasion is an important part of leadership.

One year things changed dramatically in one engineering department. Somebody must have forgotten to tell the young engineer who volunteered, because he really tried hard. He was an inexperienced leader and he made lots of mistakes, but he convinced many engineers and managers in his department to buy or increase their investments in savings bonds.

Because of the new volunteer’s efforts, this department did better in the bond drive than any other department in the company. The president of the company took note and asked who ran the bond drive. He learned and remembered this young engineer's name. It was the beginning of a series of promotions that eventually resulted in this young engineer becoming a vice president.

Principle Three: Never Stop Learning

Drucker was a lifelong proponent of lifelong learning. This concept had emerged in the German military in the early 19th century when technology began to advance so rapidly that strategy and tactics could no longer keep pace. A onetime mastery of the basics of the military profession was no longer acceptable. So the Germans institutionalized it.

From Europe this concept spread to the U.S. military and in the early 20th century it began to be adopted by U.S. corporations. Others adapted it as an individual responsibility, and Drucker promoted it for both individuals and organizations. He was himself an outstanding example, with a formal but personal program of reading and mastery of various subjects in a highly organized method of development. His commitment to this self development program explains much of his ability both to write and speak with authority in a number of subject areas and to apply this knowledge to whatever project and subject he had focused on at the time.

It doesn’t take much imagination to outline a development plan of leadership using this methodology. For example, any individual can develop a list of books aimed at leadership and then not only read them, but read them for mastery and apply the concepts laid out in each. I confess that I too laid out and implemented such a plan when I was barely a teenager. This helped me to develop at a time when the few times I had been a leader previously, I had failed miserably.

Reoccurring rheumatic fever curtailed all athletic development for me for several years, and for young boys, athletic abilities are prime selectors as well as advantages in peer leadership positions. Suddenly thrust into the unwanted job of leading a Boy Scout Patrol of a dozen other boys when I was 13, I lacked confidence and had no idea how to proceed. I was determined not to fail again.

I found a book entitled Handbook for Patrol Leaders published by the Boy Scouts of America. I read and followed its advice. To my surprise, although I had setbacks, the guidelines in the book worked. Not only was I able to lead, but my “Flaming Arrow” patrol soon excelled and won a number of awards. A year later I was picked to be the Senior Patrol Leader, supervising three patrols. A year or so after that, I was made Junior Assistant Scoutmaster, the highest position a non-adult could hold.

From my own experience, I know that no matter where you are in your leadership development, this development never ends. Just follow these three principles:

• Expect Failure at First, but Keep at It

• Volunteer, Make Mistakes, and Keep Learning Leadership

• Never Stop Learning

William Cohen, Ph.D. Contributor:   William Cohen, Ph.D.


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