Your Leadership Origin Story

comic-superhero-standing-silhouette_23-2147501843I love superheroes. Because, face it, they can do super-human things like leap tall buildings with a single bound, run faster than a speeding bullet, bend metal, sense danger from miles away, shoot laser beams from their eyes, fly, and the list goes on.

That’s just awesome!

But sometimes what’s even cooler than their superhuman skills is how they became superheroes in the first place.

My favorite part of the superhero story is the origin because it tells us who the hero was before he or she was super. It explains what inspired an ordinary person to become something extra-ordinary.

The superhero origin story makes me think about the real-life leaders and heroes who surround and inspire us to do extra-ordinary things every single day. These are our parents, teachers, coaches, firefighters, police officers, soldiers, business leaders, entrepreneurs, scientists, pastors, athletes, government leaders, civil rights activists, and many others.

Ever wonder what first inspired them to step up and say “follow me?” If we did, imagine what we could learn from their origin stories.

And what about your own story? Have you ever thought back on that first time when you chose to lead? Why you did it? What inspired you? We all have a story. What’s yours?

For me, my story is pretty simple. But it reminds me of the basic lessons of leadership that I was taught at a young age. Also, it makes me smile because the first time I stepped up to lead was simply motivated by my selfish desire to have a little fun. And, boy, did I.

It was the sixth grade and I was taking a class on Texas History. My teacher assigned us a project to tell a story about the Battle of the Alamo. She said “be creative.” That was it. Those two words made up her singular instructions.

At that point in my childhood I had already decided I would be a movie director when I grew up. So, my teacher had just handed me a reason to make my very first movie. I was inspired.

The Alamo
Battle of the Alamo

First thing I did was hire my dad and his video camera for the weekend. Second, I scouted locations all around the neighborhood that I thought could authentically pass for “1836 Texas.” Then, with camera crew and locations at the ready, I cast my closest friends and together we scraped up every costume and prop we could find in our parents’ closets. Turns out I owned a coonskin cap, so it was decided I would play the part of Davy Crockett.

We spent the next weekend reenacting the famous Battle of the Alamo with the camera always rolling. We improvised the script as we went along, made the sounds of gunfire and cannons with our mouths, edited in the camera with the rewind and fast-forward buttons, and had an all around blast. When it was over we gathered on the carpet around my living room television set and watched our masterpiece unfold as we ate pizza and rolled on the floor laughing.

I look back on that experience fondly. Now, peering through adult eyes I can admit the final product was just terrible. But at the time we thought it was amazing. We were proud of what we created and the teacher appreciated it enough that I actually got an “A.”

A few months later we even did a follow-up film on the Texas Rangers with a cast double the size and a final product that was even worse than the first. Like a proper sequel, it was bigger and badder. But again, we loved it. We rallied around a common purpose and felt a passion for the work.

I never became a movie director, but that’s okay. My path took me in a different direction, but what I learned from that first leadership experience was how to set a vision, get others excited to join my project, and execute on an idea. It shaped me into the person that would continue to seek opportunities to lead and learn throughout the rest of my school years and now my career.

That’s my origin story. What’s yours?


Let’s phase out leadership development

I readily admit that it could be self-damaging to suggest we do something as silly as phasing out leadership development.  After all, this is what I do for a living.  I create leadership learning programs, I coach leaders on their personal development, and I teach leadership to anyone who wants to listen.  I read and study it…and then read some more…  Some say (ok, just me) that I ‘geek out’ on leadership.  Why not?  It is a pretty cool topic.  Don’t you think?

But, what would happen if we stopped teaching leadership development in corporations?  Would there be no leaders?  Probably not.  Would people stop learning about leadership?  Certainly not.  In fact, good leaders learn about it on their own…arguably.   And the best leaders never stop learning.  They are always asking “How am I doing?  How can I be better?”

But, this is a minority.  I know this.  I know so many leaders who are in leadership roles, who really aren’t leaders.  I’ll go out on a limb and say that they are actually managers.  There is a difference.  And that’s a topic for another day.

Corporations spend millions of dollars creating future leaders and ensuring current leaders know what they are doing.  They say it is critical to the success of an organization (considered a “competitive advantage” by many).  But why?  Seriously?   If leadership is so important, why aren’t we simply hiring them by selecting from a giant pool of ready leaders, rather than teaching it ourselves?  I think I know why.  Because they aren’t out there.  For some reason, the concept and deployment of leadership eludes so many.  But why?

How could this be possible?  I could not begin to articulate how much available literature there is on the subject.  Now, more than ever, it is readily available, with free content everywhere I turn.  And it is not like this is a new concept.  We have had leaders since Adam and Eve.  Eve…now there was a leader…”Here Adam, eat this apple…”  I didn’t say leaders couldn’t be misguided…

The simple fact is that we don’t teach it early enough…and maybe another problem is that many organizations aren’t set up to reinforce good leadership behavior through their culture and practices…but that’s yet another train of thought for another day.  For now I want to zero in on the idea that maybe we should be teaching leadership much earlier in life.

Growing up I heard about leadership.  I even volunteered for, and was elected into, formal leadership roles.  And I think I did a good job for the most part.  I think I had some good instincts to guide me.  This is probably a similar experience for most people.  But, to be painfully honest, I didn’t know what the $&$% I was doing most of the time.  It wasn’t until I took an elective (i.e. not required) course in my graduate program that I started to understand some of the art and science behind leadership, and then decided to continue studying and practicing on my own.  And now I get to teach this mysterious concept to adults in an organizational setting.

But, why so late?  Why didn’t someone sit me down at a much younger age and say “Alan, let me teach you about leadership because this is what we need to be successful in life.”  Why aren’t we teaching it as part of required learning for all, along side math, science and reading, starting as early as elementary school?  Is this happening somewhere in the world, and I am just the unlucky one who missed it?

Let’s phase leadership development out of the corporation…and into the schools.  And then, maybe my job would be about ensuring my organization is set up to support our leaders in all their awesome leader-ness, and to help them with their ongoing learning…not teach it to them for the first time.