There are plenty of books on leadership out there by countless self-entitled business gurus. In fact, there’s way too many, if you ask me. It’s an industry. Next time you’re at a bookstore, try counting how many authors promise to reveal to you the quasi-magical secrets to becoming the next corporate Napoleon, or Ghandi. You’ll see what I mean.
Call me cynical, but I’m always reluctant to trust books advertised with someone’s big smiling face on the cover, large colorful titles, earth-shattering recipe-like promises, and a hefty price tag. I often shoot a quick indifferent glance at these books and move along. I don’t mean to say that they’re all useless. You’ll definitely find a lot of valuable insights from fantastic authors who actually know their stuff. It’s just that, by sheer gut instinct, I’d much rather learn leadership from the men and women who make their living by leading – not by selling books.
Throughout my first few weeks at The Boeing Company in Seattle, I have been incredibly fortunate to meet with many of its leaders. From the CEO of the company’s Commercial Airplanes business unit, down to my own manager, I have learned – mainly through observation and reflection – about the spot on qualities of true leaders as demonstrated by them.
My very first executive roundtable alongside eight other international interns was with Commercial Airplanes CEO Ray Conner. What first struck me about Conner was his humble, friendly, and down-to-earth persona. Here was a man in charge of a top line of over $35 billion, and yet, you could have easily mistaken him for one of your favorite high school teachers.
When asked about what the job of a CEO is like, he did not hesitate to answer honestly and plainly: “It’s a 24/7 job.”
That’s lesson number one about top-level leadership. Don’t be mistaken, being a leader is not about glory or status. Far from that, leadership is first and foremost about total dedication and even sacrifice.
Indeed, when you’re a leader, you’ll likely have to work harder than everyone else. That is a key truth to understand. People look up to you and people depend on you. At top levels, it’s a responsibility that not everybody can handle. So it’s important to ask yourself if you’ve got what it takes, and more importantly, if you actually want it. Being a leader is a mission, a duty, and serious lifestyle that you must embrace wholly or not embrace at all.
Later that same week, I participated in a two-day offsite with Boeing’s Global Technology and Supplier Management group. Each of us had “trading cards” with our names, pictures, and fun facts, such as favorite movies and travel destinations.
These cards were brilliant icebreakers and networking facilitators, as people went around trading them. Throughout those two days, Vice President Paul Pasquier went around and exchanged cards with every single employee present. He made it a point to get to know each of us personally - there were 190 of us! Then, to our surprise, he revealed he still had people’s trading cards from previous years.
At the end of the two-day event, we had a group tour of the 737 factory in Renton. When the tour concluded, as everyone was about to leave and head back to their homes or hotels, Pasquier made sure he shook hands, thanked, and said a friendly goodbye to each individual who had accompanied him on that tour. Only once he had done that did he leave for his home. Those gestures made a huge impression on me.
Lesson number two for leaders: always care about your people. They’re your most valuable assets. If you want them to follow you, you have to earn their respect, loyalty, and appreciation. The best and most sincere way to do that is to care about them. Then other people will be dying to work for you, too.
My second executive roundtable was with Billy Glover, Commercial Airplane’s Vice President of International Strategy. During the Q&A, he turned the tables and began asking us the questions: “Is there anything about your countries that Boeing misunderstands or things that we should know? How can we do better?” Suddenly the interns were glowing with excitement. The Socratic method worked. Soon we had an impromptu seminar in that conference room, where we all shared and discussed insights about our countries’ culture and political trends. Later, we were all smiling and couldn’t stop talking about how wonderful that roundtable had been...
Lesson number three for leaders: always encourage two-way dialogue with your people and listen to them, regardless of their position. Everybody has something to contribute. That is especially true in today’s world, where globalization and increased social mobility have provided companies with a rich diversity of backgrounds and experience. Moreover, the impression a leader makes on his people when he engages them in such genuine two-way conversations is a very powerful one. People feel valued. It inspires.
Lesson number four came from my own manager, Kyle Teater, who leads Global Technology’s strategy and finance team. When I first joined his team, we sat down to talk about some of the expectations he has for my six-month assignment. “I want you to spend about 50 to 60 percent of your time working on the usual finance tasks and 10 to 20 percent of your time on activities with your internship program. The remainder of your time is for you to work on a project of your own. Go ahead and do anything related to Boeing. Take ownership and impress.”
What he did was hand me a blank canvas. I couldn’t be more ecstatic.
Lesson number four on leadership: empower your people. Organizations have plenty of talented and ambitious people who just need an opportunity to shine. So give it to them. Hand them a blank canvas and let them create, innovate, and accomplish – and above all, find satisfaction in their work.
To recap: 1) understand the lifestyle of leadership; 2) care about your people; 3) inspire and encourage people to share their diverse personal insights, 4) empower your people. These are just four brief lessons on leadership I’ve learned from simply observing my leaders.
Next time you feel the urge to reach for your credit card whilst browsing the business section of a bookstore, consider if instead you could try to draw some insights by reflecting about the leaders you know. You might be surprised by what you learn.
Top Photo Credit: Getty Images