A radical approach to becoming a great leader

The challenge for many leaders is that we don't have the fortitude to step up to the plate to become the type of leader that people trust. The following story is true. It's a potential inspiration to any leader ready to make real changes in his or her life, and it gives understanding of what makes a good leader great.

Steve Farber is president of Extreme Leadership, Inc. "The Radical Leap: A Personal Lesson in Extreme Leadership" is a recipient of Fast Company magazine's readers choice award. This article was found on the Web site, . It is published with Mr. Farber's permission.

The challenge for many leaders is that we don't have the fortitude to step up to the plate to become the type of leader that people trust. The following story is true. It's a potential inspiration to any leader ready to make real changes in his or her life, and it gives understanding of what makes a good leader great.

As a regional manager at a major brokerage firm, Michael had been working on his own leadership skills for several years, but despite his efforts, his retail branch region had been consistently ranked last or second to last in his company's employee opinion survey, and in this rare company where surveys are taken seriously—the results are published and ranked—this was bad news for Michael's career. He was losing his credibility as a manager.

Then he had the epiphany.

Even though the surveys specifically reflected the views of frontline branch employees whose lives were affected by their immediate supervisors, Michael assumed that he was the problem, not the supervisors. Just allowing himself that realization was a risky endeavor.

Suddenly, responsibility rested squarely on Michael's already sore shoulders. The blame game was no longer an option, and he launched him self irrevocably into do-or-die mode. He cranked up the risk factor one more notch.

He gathered his management team together, stood up in front of the conference room, and said, "I'm screwing up; the numbers show it, so I want you to tell me what I'm doing wrong and what I need to do to improve.

"I'm going to leave the room," he went on, "and I'd like you to get very specific and write down your ideas on flip-chart paper. When I come back, we'll talk through each item."

And he walked out.

A half-hour later he came back and knocked on the door. "We're not done yet," they said.

Finally, after 90 minutes, they let him in. The walls were all covered in flipchart paper. List after list of suggestions for him had been taped around the room.

He kept his balance and took a deep breath.

Michael knew that his reaction in that moment would make or break the whole exercise, as well as his personal credibility. So he took a radical approach and responded authentically.

"I'm really disappointed," he said, "in myself. I had no idea there'd be so much."

He didn't defend, justify, or make excuses as they talked together for the next two hours. All he did was ask some questions to make sure he fully under stood each item.

Imagine the intestinal fortitude that Michael needed to keep that conversation going for that long. "And another thing, boss" . . . was said more than once.

At the end of the day, with rolls of flip-chart paper tucked under his arms and a pounding sensation behind his eyes, Michael looked at his team and said two words straight from the heart: "Thank you." That night and the next couple of days, Michael told me, were the most difficult of his entire career. He was devastated and overwhelmed by the severity of the feedback and the immense challenge to follow through. He recovered from the initial shock, however, and went on.

Nobody expected Michael to start at the top of list one, item one, and work down, systematically planning to fix them all. But they saw him try. He proved through his own actions that the session hadn't been a consultant assigned exercise that he had been forced into tolerating.

The next round of surveys ranked Michael's organization second from the top in the entire company, with jumps of 80 to 90 percent in some measures. That's a radical leap no matter how you look at it, but the funny thing is, the improvement had relatively little to do with Michael's follow-up actions. It had everything to do with his team

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Steve Farber is president of Extreme Leadership, Inc. "The Radical Leap: A Personal Lesson in Extreme Leadership" is a recipient of Fast Company magazine's readers choice award. This article was found on the Web site, . It is published with Mr. Farber's permission.

July/August 2005

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