Bold Leadership

A candidate for a leadership position in my company asked me the most interesting question during our recent interview: “Have you changed at all in the last 10 years? I mean, are you the same leader you were 10 years ago?”

I’d never been asked that question before and I had to pause to think about it. I told him that I am a big believer in continuing education and, in fact, that’s one of the reasons I belong to an international CEO group called “Vistage.” To continually work on my leadership skills, learn from new speakers, and share best practices with other CEOs, I attend a monthly full-day group meeting, have one-on-one sessions with my executive coach, plus I go to the annual regional conference.

When I attended the annual Vistage Executive Conference last week in downtown Los Angeles, I was reminded what a great experience it is. I was one of 450 CEOs from every possible industry: construction, manufacturing, distribution, accounting, fashion, education…everything!

The keynote speaker was the principal of a Philadelphia high school. Linda Cliatt-Wayman was formerly the assistant superintendent of schools for her district. When the district made the decision to merge three rival high schools (think gangs and crosstown rivals) into one, her job was to find a candidate to be the new principal. After an extensive search, which resulted in zero candidates, she resigned her position as assistant superintendent and accepted the position as principal, for a five-year term.

Karen Caplan and Linda Cliatt-Wayman

Me and Linda Cliatt-Wayman

(I encourage you to watch the Diane Sawyer story about Principal Wayman. All of us in the audience watched it before Linda took the stage.)

This amazing leader spoke for about 30 minutes about her experience as principal of Strawberry Mansion High School in the inner city of Philadelphia. She commented that even though she is in education and we in the audience were in business, “Leadership is leadership.”

She shared three slogans that she has used during her career.

  • If you’re going to lead, LEAD. She reminded us that others view us as leaders through our actions. So it was incumbent upon her to demonstrate her leadership every day. And to everyone. Make decisions. Share her vision. Stay true to her convictions and her values. Failure was not an option. Sometimes leaders have to go out on a limb.
  • So what! Now, what? This slogan really resonated with me. We all have situations that come up and challenges that we face. And it’s not unusual for some team members to make excuses for what has happened. Linda’s philosophy is “So what!” The key is “Now, what?” Whatever the situation or what caused us to get there, what are you/we going to do about it? That’s true leadership. She said, “‘So what’ pushes me. ‘Now, what?’ inspires me!”
  • If nobody told you that they loved you today, remember that I do, and I always will. Let me give you some context to this one. Linda described Strawberry Mansion High School as having been on the “persistently dangerous” school list for the last five years. This means regular violence, weapons, fights amongst students, etc. On campus. Every day. And the teachers, administrators, and security had to deal with and be prepared for all this every single day.

So Linda started and ended each day by making this announcement on the campus intercom system: “If nobody told you that they loved you today, remember that I do, and I always will.” For many of the students, it was the ONLY time that someone told them that they were loved. She also knew that many of the students were brilliant and wanted to learn. They didn’t want violence, confrontation, and fighting. They wanted to learn and to better themselves. But they had no choice but to attend Strawberry Mansion. So, by sharing her love and her willingness to love them all, without judgment, Linda changed the lives of everyone at that school.

She also uncovered something that was unspoken, but was the root cause of much tension at the school and in the community—the high school did not have a football team!

strawberrymansonhigh

That may not sound like a big deal, but if you think back to your days in high school, you know that sports, especially football, can bring an entire community together. So, as she relayed her leadership lessons to us, she wove into her talk the story of how she was able to help the school develop a football team for the first time in 50 years. This included funding for a coach, a playing field, and uniforms. And she did this all in spite of all the obstacles, by staying true to her values, stating her goal over and over (even when she had no idea how she would accomplish it), and asking for the support of people who had the same goals she did.

Each of us is a leader. Whether it is in business, in the community, or in our families. Do we have a vision? What are the persistent problems not being addressed?

Leaders must create a picture of success—a vision—and share it. Bold leadership takes courage. Sometimes we need assistance. And sometimes we need to keep stating our vision, over and over, even if it seems as impossible as getting a high school football team after 50 years of obstacles.

So, am I the same leader I was 10 years ago? No way. I’ve learned too much from those around me. And I am open to learning more every day. How about you?

Ask yourself: Are you the same leader you were 10 years ago? Where do you get your inspiration? How do you sharpen your tools?

So what! Now, what?

Karen

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