A Whole Lot of Hooey
I've worked with business executives for more than 20 years, and only a few have proved to be exceptional. And those that are, have never attended a "Leadership Development" program a day in their lives. Oddly enough, the executives who did usually wound up being merely mediocre.
Likewise, most of the "High Potentials" I've seen do little more than what's considered politically correct. Pleasing one's superiors still seems to be the dominant mode for climbing the corporate ladder.
Upon close examination, I've come to discover that stellar performers share very little in common. Some are bold and independent. Others, obnoxious and rude. Several are even shy and taciturn. It doesn't really seem to matter. Mentoring, training and coaching have never appealed to them. They see it all as unnecessary. What they possess is not the product of education or development. It comes from somewhere else.
I now believe that great leaders are more like artists than executives. Picasso knew what he was talking about when he said: "I don't develop; I am."
Where does Talent come from?
There is a Best Practice business model that explains this phenomenon, but it's not from Tom Peters or Jim Collins. It's from another astute business luminary: Plato. Granted, as a 4th century B.C. practitioner, he was in a different kind of business than today's experts, but over the years his books have outsold anyone who's ever been on Ophrah.
Plato's view of Leadership derives from his "Acorn Theory." In a nutshell, here's how it works.
All of us are born into this world with an "acorn" that is destined to grow into a mighty oak. This acorn is often referred to as our calling, vocation or destiny. Before arriving here, we were perfectly clear on what our calling was - but in the process of being born all remembrances were lost. Plato believed that the gods send us here with a precise destiny; we just can't remember what it is. To help manage this dilemma, we are accompanied by our own "daimon," loosely translated as a Guardian Angel. It's our angel who remembers our vocation and is individually assigned to make sure it gets lived out.
Peril and misfortune may assail us. Enemies and miscreants may assault us. Parents and educators may even abuse us. No need to worry; the acorn will prevail. The daimon is ever near to insure a safe passage. For some, says Plato, the dangers and difficulties have elements of divine necessity: all required to mature the acorn, crush it underfoot … so that it may blossom into a mighty oak. Gods don't waste time on fruitless endeavors. The Divine has a pre-ordained master plan in place.
Similar to Churchill's description of Russia, the acorn is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. But lack of clarity doesn't let us off the hook. Living out our acorn and cooperating with the daimon is of critical importance because our happiness is intimately connected to it. Money, fame and success will not insure our personal fulfillment. Cooperating with our calling, will. And we are all invited to do so, and do it well. With our own flair; in our own inimitable style. We're not here to live out our parent's wishes or our company's Vision. We've got more compelling goals to achieve.
Growing Up … and Growing Down
Being worthy of our destiny requires embracing the talents bestowed upon us and bringing them to public fruition. It's about being visible and making a difference. Sometimes, the acorn manifests itself early in life. Other times, it ripens with the passage of years.
Growing up into our responsibilities is only part of the journey. There is a need to grow down as well. Spreading our wings and soaring to the heights is merely one aspect. Like the mighty oak whose branches reach high into the air, there is a corresponding network of earthly roots that must sink themselves deep into the soil anchoring it for display. The growing down part of the tree is as important as its growing up, lest in the face of foul weather, it topples.
The growing up part is public and often met with acknowledgment and worldly attention. Growing down is private, usually performed in the darkness of night and surrounded by the mundane affairs of daily life.
While speaking recently at a business conference, I ended by quoting Gandhi's dictum that we must be the change we wish to see in the world. After the talk, a woman approached and asked if I was familiar with the entire quote. I wasn't. She recited it from memory: "Almost everything you do will seem insignificant, but it is very important that you do it. Be the change you wish to see in the world." Gandhi understood the value of the prosaic. Engaging in the insignificant and pedestrian aspects of our lives tempers the grandness of the acorn's call. Showing up for work, caring for family and friends, performing daily chores are ordinary but critical components of our destiny. It keeps us grounded, accessible and wedded to the earthiness of the human condition.
How does Destiny get played out?
Consider David Thomas. As an infant he never knew his birth parents and was shifted around from pillar to post, losing his adoptive mother when he was five and two stepmothers by the age of 10. He eventually wound up being raised by his aged grandmother. Dave wasn't exactly the brightest of students either, dropping out of school when he was 15. He got a few jobs, but nothing extraordinary. He had to grow down before he grew up. Dave performed menial chores always under the auspices of his benevolent grandmother, and his ever-present daimon. But things began to change. With some luck cooking food in the army and later running a KFC restaurant, he took a bold step and opened a small hamburger joint in Columbus, Ohio - a few blocks from where I studied as a graduate student. He named it after his daughter, hoping it would bring him good fortune. He even made his hamburgers square, not round - remembering the advice of the woman who raised him: "Don't cut corners."
Mr. Thomas eventually became a philanthropist and a media darling pitching his successful franchise, Wendy's. Remembering the pain of his early childhood, he lobbied Congress to enact legislation to help families adopt kids and change employment law to extend benefits to people who did. He even hired a tutor so he could get his high school diploma at the unseemly age of 60. The teenagers at the school voted him "Most Likely to Succeed," and elected him and his wife of 47 years as king and queen of the prom. But David started out as an orphan.
Or how about Harold Yuker? Born with cerebral palsy, he was forced to go to a school for crippled children, with little chance of academic advancement. Back then, kids like that were expected to stay out of sight and not embarrass themselves or others. But he prevailed on the system, and went on to get his Ph.D. As Provost and Dean of Faculties at Hofstra University, he made a point to go out of his way to ensure other physically challenged children would never have to endure what he did. Harold got laws changed, doors opened and mindsets moved. The University even named a reference library after him. Handicapped? Yes. Disabled? Never!
Ella, as a little girl, showed up at the Harlem Opera House to tap dance in a talent show. After the Master of Ceremonies introduced her, at the last minute she changed her mind: "I ain't gonna dance; instead, I wanna sing." And sing she did - to prolonged applause and wild raves from the crowd. But Ella Fitzgerald came that day to the theater intending to dance. Obviously, something else was underfoot.
We need not only look at publicly recognized personages. Carol, a friend of mine at work, told me that as a teenager she should have been in a car that wound up in a tragic, deadly accident. But she missed her ride. "I think there's a reason I was spared," is the way she looks at it. What that reason is, I haven't a clue. But last year I was present at one of my company's off-site programs with 500 of our employees. When we asked them to speak publicly about leaders who have changed their lives, Carol was cited by more than a few.
Our HR staff is still wondering why Carol's name has never appeared on their list of High Potentials. It's quite possible she may be a step or two ahead of our newly revised Performance Appraisal System. Hard as it is for some to fathom, Carol's reach may far exceed Corporate America's grasp.
Role models abound; look at your own family and friends. They've got an acorn and an active daimon as well. More importantly, look within. It is most vibrantly present there.
Nice work … if you can get it
Even though Plato's thinking falls more in the realm of mythology than modern day Leadership theory - is there really much of a difference? - its premise resonates with humankind's experience. In our more reflective moments, we're aware that we have been awarded particular gifts; we know that we've been called; we are certain that we're here for a higher purpose. Our life journey is replete with experiences that are bizarre, serendipitous and even precarious. And yet we have endured. There is an overarching reason for this.
Speaking about this deeper longing, John Mason Brown reminds us: "We act as though comfort and luxury were the chief requirements of life when all that we need to make us really happy is something to be enthusiastic about." And what could generate more enthusiasm than living out the mystery of our lives with a sense of panache, intrigue and adventure? Even our English word enthusiasm comes from the ancient Greeks, meaning "possessed by the gods."
It's not by chance that we are here. We have a unique destiny with a clear purpose in mind. And powerful intermediaries have been dispatched to accompany us in bringing this all about. Even in the Bible, the Divine reminds us: "Before I knit you in your mother's womb, I knew you. Before you were born, I chose you."
So, be bold. Be brave. Take more risks and stop playing it safe. You already are safe.
And the next time someone offers to send you away for some Leadership Development, tell 'em to buzz off: you've got more important things to do with your time.
P.S. If you're thinking about writing me, give in to the temptation. I love getting mail ... and being influenced by what you have to say. Please e-mail me at email@example.com.
Kenny Moore is co-author of "The CEO and the Monk: One Company's Journey to Profit and Purpose" (John Wiley and Sons, 2004), rated as one of the Top Ten best selling business books on Amazon.com. He is Corporate Ombudsman and Human Resources Director at a New York City Fortune 500 energy company. Reporting to the C.E.O., he is primarily responsible for awakening joy, meaning and commitment in the workplace. While these efforts have largely been met with skepticism, he remains eternally optimistic of their future viability.
Kenny has over 20 years experience with change management, leadership development and healing the corporate community. He's been profiled on CBS Sunday Morning News, and interviewed by Tom Peters, The Wall Street Journal and Fast Company magazine regarding his unique leadership style. His business practices are based on Louie Armstrong who said: "I am here in the service of Happiness." Louis died a rich and beloved man; his voice still rings in the ears (and hearts) of millions. Kenny is the recipient of Notre Dame University's 2006 "Hesburg Award" for his significant contribution to the field of business ethics.
Prior to his work in corporate America, Kenny spent 15 years in a monastic community as a Catholic priest. Several years ago, he had the good fortune of being diagnosed with "incurable" cancer, at its most advanced stages. He underwent a year of experimental treatment at the National Cancer Institute and survived. Kenny came away from that experience recalling the words of Oliver Wendell Holmes: "Most of us go to our graves with our music still inside us." Kenny's lifetime goal is to spend more of his time playing his music. Having dealt with both God and death, Kenny now finds himself eminently qualified to work with senior management on corporate change efforts.
Kenny is a watercolor artist, poet and photographer. He is Founding Director of "Art for the Anawim," a not-for-profit charity which works with the art community in supporting the needs of terminally ill children and the inner city poor. His poems have been published in several anthologies; one was selected as a semi-finalist in the North American Open Poetry Contest. Kenny lives in Totowa, NJ and is married to the "fair and beautiful" Cynthia. Together, they are fighting a losing battle of maintaining their mental stability while raising 2 growing boys.
Kenny can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (973) 956-8210
(Kenny is also a regular contributor to The CEO Refresher. He has the distinction of having the longest bio we have published as it is, in and of itself, a truly wonderful and inspirational story of a man on a most mindful mission. Thanks Kenny. ed.)
Many more articles in Creative Leadership in The CEO Refresher