I have been truly blessed to have been given the opportunity to lead so many great insurance professionals over my 40-year career insurance. My formula for becoming a leader is the sum of my own stories and experiences. Not the experiences in the leadership roles I held, but more from being led by people that exhibited a leadership trait(s) that most resonated with me. In my upcoming book, I speak candidly about those great leaders who helped guide, tell their stories about my journey with them, and shaped me into the leader that I am today.
It is my firm belief that reading leadership books or listening to great leaders speak about leading others may work for some. Not this guy! Applying the skills read or heard can only be mastered by practicing them. In the hustle and bustle of day-to-day life, that is hard to do. It will be no surprise to this esteemed group of educators, as I watch my grandchildren grow and develop, that mirroring their parents, siblings and other family members helps to shape children into the mirror image of their teachers. Children are all little mimics, encouraged by their parents with praise, “good job Daenerys!’ (that is my granddaughter’s name). My question is it “nature or nurture?”
People are not born with a leadership gene as part of the DNA that makes us who we are. I am assuming that was is the case because my DNA record from 23 and Me did not reveal that about me. We are all Born 2 Lead. Leadership just needs to be unlocked by the will to become a leader and being surrounded by great leaders that you can mirror. I know as a young parent it is hard to see this developing in your children. Life is busy trying to balance all the daily issues and raise children, it’s not easy. As a grandparent, since you have the time to observe it becomes very clear what is happening and how behaviors are transferred from the teacher to the student. It’s quite simple, watch me do it and copy me, with of course some corrections that are necessary along the way.
Pretty simple process, yet who really takes the time to make those connections, especially those of us who are not trained professionals in learning skills. My book suggests that taking the time to reflect on great bosses and what made them great to work for, is the place to begin. That was my plan, so I spent time considering the great leaders I worked with, cataloged the behaviors they used to encourage me to be a better performer, and created scenarios that I could use to practice that skill. The DVR in my brain knew how they exhibited that behavior, so it was easy to “write the script” to use in my mastery of that skill.
I relied on some of my great bosses to help me through the process. In my book, I capture the stories of 15 leaders who influenced my leadership style. Randi S. said, “a plan without a purpose is not a plan”. Joan V said, “every idea is a good one if you execute”. Lois K. said, “trust is earned and grows over time, but one slip should not be fatal”. But my grandfather Albert taught me the most important lesson and I am sure he had no idea how profound his lesson would be on my life. My Grandpa read me the most important leadership book I have ever read. Those who know me will tell you I carry that book everywhere I go. Grandpa Albert was an immigrant and a skilled cabinet maker who did not have a college education, heck he did not finish grade school. He did not study leadership, but he knew of the most important leadership behavior of all. You see the book he read to me at an early age was about this little blue engine. An engine that everyone made fun of because it was so small. When a train needed to be pulled over the mountain to deliver food and toys to the town on the other side, all the other engines said they were too tired, too important, or too busy. Not the little blue engine, it knew it needed to be done. The rest of the story is familiar to most of us, the little blue engine “knew they could do it”. Grandpa Albert read me the story of The Little Engine That Could.
It was years later, in my early career as an insurance professional that one of the great leaders I worked for, Karl K, reminded me of the book my grandpa read to me. In front of the entire sales, underwriting, claims, and operations leadership he read that book. It brought back memories very dear to me and the message become abundantly clear. Persistence and resilience were the leadership behaviors of the little blue engine. The story created the roadmap to mirror to practice and master this skill. It is a skill I believe, along with all the other leadership behaviors I have mastered, that ties everything together.
For me, the test came one day in 2001. I had reached one of my personal goals in life. I was the Regional President of a major insurance company. One of only 4 who was in that role. Using all the leadership lessons I had learned, practiced, and mastered over the years helped me reach the pinnacle of my career at that time. That whole world came crashing down around my ears one Monday evening. My boss, on a routine visit, informed me that there were major changes coming to the company and I was being job eliminated and my team was being absorbed into another region. After those words, I did not hear a single word he said. That has happened only two times in my life to date, this and when I was told by my doctor that I had cancer. After a few days of feeling sorry for myself, I was unpacking some boxes from my office and there was “the book”. Memories rushed over me like a tidal wave. Grandpa Albert and Karl K. seemed to speak to me. I Think I Can, I Think I Can, I Know I can.
The resilience and persistence of the little engine were in me. I had practiced it for years and mastered it. I rose above my self-pity and began reaching out to my network of friends and colleagues. Like the little engine, I succeeded in getting over that mountain in my life. The rest of the story is still being written, but that moment is stuck in my mind forever and guides me. Five years ago, when I found I had cancer, the same inspiration came over me. Being cancer-free now for 5 years means, I won!
If you really want to lead others, being the best leader, it takes practice. You need a game plan and practice it faithfully. Ultimately you will succeed if you remember The Little Engine That Could!