Your Peers Are Really Smart Too: What will differentiate you?

Welcome to the No Bullsh!t Leadership podcast. In a world where knowledge has become a commodity, this podcast is designed to give you something more; access to the experience of a successful CEO who has already walked the path. So join your host Martin Moore, who will unlock and bring to life your own leadership experiences, and accelerate your journey to leadership excellence.

Hey there, and welcome to episode 28 of the No Bullsh!t Leadership podcast. This week's episode: Your Peers Are Really Smart Too: What will differentiate you? We’ve spoken in recent episodes about leadership attributes and competencies. During your career, you'll come into contact with many people who are smart, well educated, experienced, shrewd, politically astute, and even some who are downright Machiavellian. What is it that's going to make you stand out?

In this episode, we'll talk about what it takes to be really good at anything. We'll cover off on the concept of getting your ‘ticket to the dance’. We explore why knowing yourself is the very first step. And then finally, we'll look at how to be very deliberate about the type of leader you want to become. So let's get into it.

We all want to stand out in our careers and in life. The fact that you're listening to this podcast is proof that you want to be your best, and although we often see life in competitive terms, it's actually not a competition. Although this might seem a little cliche, it is genuinely about becoming the best you can be at the things that bring you deep satisfaction and happiness. But everyone approaches this differently.

There was an American marathon runner named Frank Shorter, who won the gold medal at the 1972 Olympics in Munich, and follow it up four years later in Montreal with a silver medal. Now, Shorter is famous for a number of no-nonsense quotes. It was rumoured that he would train in all weather conditions, so when a journalist once asked him why he was so fanatical about this training, that he would even go out in subzero blizzards, Shorter simply said, "Because those are the days when the other guys stay inside and eat pies."

That's where he saw his competitive edge, not just physically, but mentally, and this was his way of building the mental and physical strength to perform at his best. As he once quipped, "You don't run 26 miles at five minute mile pace on good looks and a secret recipe." I can personally vouch for this. My marathon running career may have been brief, but it was unimpressive. I always thought that I could break the three hour mark.

Now for context, Frank Shorter's personal best was two hours and 10 minutes, so I never compared myself to Frank, but with my stumpy legs and my heavy bones, true story, three hours would have been for me, my ultimate performance level. The point here, is that I never compared myself to anyone else. I was only competing against myself and the clock to see if I could perform at my best. I was always incredibly happy for my training partners when they achieved their goals and I never cared if I ran faster or slower than them.

It was all about performing at my best through being as physically fit and as mentally strong as I could possibly be. In the end I never broke three hours, and in fact my personal best was three hours and 15 minutes. Putting that into context, for those of you who aren't familiar with the sport. The world record for marathon is just over two hours. In 1994, Oprah Winfrey ran the Marine Corps marathon in Arlington, Virginia in around four hours and 30 minutes.

So, at three hours and 15, that puts me almost exactly in between the fastest marathon ever run by human and Oprah! The challenge for each of us is, first, to work out what we think it's worth getting really good at and then devoting ourselves to the work, the sacrifice and the commitment that it takes to master that thing.

Just a couple of reminders here. Obstacles are put in front of us to guard the path to success. There is no need to be concerned or anxious about this and no need to be afraid. Life is designed that way, and it's to keep the pretenders out. Remember, as with anything worthwhile in life, if it was easy, everyone would be doing it. You can't bargain, you can't take shortcuts, and you can't find a way to cheat, but if you’re truly prepare to do what it takes, success is assured.

Let's move on now and talk about the metaphor of getting your ‘ticket to the dance’. This is a great metaphor for what we're talking about here. If you think that what you're looking for is going to be at the dance, metaphorically speaking, then you want to make sure that you put yourself in that ballroom. If you're not actually at the dance, there's no way you'll be able to take advantage of anything that might transpire there.

Stepping away from metaphor, in an organisational sense, there are a whole range of skills, knowledge and experience that will put you in the right place, but won't really have any bearing on how or if your expectations are met once you get there. These are the entry level criteria to getting into the game. Things like, the essential qualifications for your industry, degrees, diplomas, tickets of competency and so forth.

Experience in actually doing the work and producing results, demonstrated ability to perform and behave in the environment you're in - so for example, being able to play in the sandpit nicely with the other kids - and of course a rudimentary level of emotional intelligence and resilience. For someone who aspires to be a great leader though, all of this is what I like to call, necessary, but not sufficient.

As you go through the levels, you'll notice that your peers at every level are the people who are generally better at the core things than most. These are people who tend to rise upwards. Some have more of an emphasis on their intellect. Some have more emphasis on their expert knowledge. Some rely almost entirely on political astuteness and upwards management. No matter how you look at it, your peers are really smart too. They've worked out how to progress through an organisation with varying degrees of ease, capability and impact on those around them of course.

Some even leave a trail of dead bodies, so to speak, and others leave a positive legacy wherever they go, but they all have their ‘ticket to the dance’. The question then remains, what will differentiate you?

The first step in trying to address this conundrum is to know yourself. Let's start with some common do's and don'ts. If you want to be a great leader as well as a competent executive, there's actually another ballroom that not many people get into.

It's what I like to call the VIP ballroom. Think of it like an exclusive backstage pass. The entry criteria for the VIP ballroom is a qualification over and above the main ballroom. So there are some criteria that are going to get you into the VIP ballroom. Most importantly, you approach the challenge of becoming a great leader with the same energy, focus, determination and gusto that you approach to your technical career.

You study, read and educate yourself in leadership. You learn from the leaders around you, both good and bad, and let me tell you, I've learned a hell of a lot more from the bad leaders than I have from the good. You take the job of a professional leader seriously, and you don't just rely on your smarts. You pay attention to the people stuff. You have the discipline to do difficult things when they need to be done without hesitation or rationalisation.

You work hard to adopt the key mantras of great leadership and you make them part of who you are. You take your duty of care seriously. Respect before popularity. You remove self interest from the equation. You don't shy away from conflict, and you learn to be calm under pressure. You grow and develop your empathy and your compassion. You learn to listen, which was a big one for me, and you communicate with influence.

This is what great leaders do. So know yourself and know where you're strong and know where you're weak. It is extremely rare that this knowledge comes without help and insight from people around you. So get prepared to be humble on this. I've seen potentially great leaders who aren't even prepared to take this feedback on board and take the step of listening to those around them.

As for me, hey, I've done a lot of, well, let's call it, self discovery testing over the years. Things like formal, structured, 360 degree feedback, which I've done every couple of years for the last many, many years. And at the age of 55, I even did a full suite of testing on my intellect and aptitude, critical thinking capability, emotional intelligence and personality drivers, and there is always something to learn from that.

It's never time to stop questioning how you behave and perform with help from independent sources. This is part of not believing your own bullsh!t. Now armed with this knowledge, we can be very deliberate about what type of leader we want to become and we want to be known as. There's so much information around about what a leader should be or should do. And I covered this off briefly in episode 25 just a few weeks ago. There is a bunch of guff about what the attributes of great leaders are.

There are thousands of blog posts, articles and, yes, podcasts released every week. Some even go so far as to say things like, ‘Only hire humble leaders’. I don't subscribe to this theory, and I'll tell you why not. You are who you are. By the time most people start thinking about their role and impact as a leader and start putting their attention to this, their personality, habits and behaviours have been forged in steel. They're really hard to change at the fundamental level.

However, there are a million things that you can do to manage your weaknesses and enhance your strengths to create your leadership brand. Unfortunately, they require a level of self awareness, which we've spoken about, commitment, focus and discipline that most people simply aren't prepared to commit, and as much as I hate to say it, this is particularly the case with people who've had some success in their career without actually doing this work.

Although they'll never be invited to the VIP ballroom, they don't really seem to mind. It would be too much like hard work, and they've proven to themselves that they can already get by without. They are already standing out from others in the main ballroom. They're making money and they're being promoted. What they don't factor into this, of course, is two really important things. The first thing is the negative and detrimental impact they have on other people's lives on their way through. And the second thing is the fact they could be so much better than they are, if they took on the challenge of becoming an outstanding leader

Now, meeting and getting to know hundreds of these people over my career, I'm still surprised that so many of them wonder why they aren't happy. Let me say it again. Know yourself, and as I said a minute ago, know your strengths and weaknesses, but here's the kicker. To become a great leader, knowing who you are, you need to know exactly what type of leader you want to become. The tricky bit is that although you should never try a model yourself on another leader as you could never be them, you must try to learn from them.

Adopting some of the best attributes that you observe in other leaders is important, and equally important is watching the poor or incompetent leaders around you and ensuring you don't do the things that they do. Although we have to remember that if a particular positive attribute is not a consistent or conquering part of who we already are, it'll be virtually impossible to fake it, particularly in stress situations. So don't try too hard to find things to add, find the things that are already in you that you can develop.

In putting this episode together, I was searching for an expression that encapsulates the results of all of this, which is for each of us a completely unique leadership style. It'll incorporate the base immutable elements of who we are. It will incorporate all the tweaks and adjustments we make, to adopt the good habits and reject the bad ones, and it'll incorporate the changing nature of the context in which we find ourselves as we're forced to adapt and mature.

I came up with an expression that I thought nailed it perfectly. ‘Your leadership fingerprint’ because it conveys that your leadership style is absolutely unique. There is no other leader exactly the same as you. Very proud of myself I was with this expression. "Nailed it, Marty." Then I thought, "Even though I haven't heard this before, leadership fingerprint, I should probably just run a quick Google search to see what's out there."

Lo and behold, about four years ago, there was an article posted on LinkedIn Pulse on ‘Your Leadership Fingerprint’ by Pamela Witter, who's based in upstate New York. It's a great little article, which nails some of the concepts we're talking about. So we'll include a link to this in our show notes. Even though it's not original, I still think it's a really good way of describing the unique package that you put together that is you and you as a leader.

Think about it and think about it very deliberately. What are my strengths and weaknesses? What is it about me that is unique and valuable? To be the best leader I could possibly be, what would I have to do to get my backstage pass to the VIP ballroom? After all, we are the sum of our habits and the focus of our attention.

I just want to close this episode with a quick example. Remember, as a leader, you are uniquely you and you can't readily change your base fundamental elements once you get to a certain age.

So you don't try and fake humble if you're not humble, just because an article on LinkedIn said you should be humble. If you do, you then have two problems. You'll still be arrogant, but now you'll also be disingenuous. If you are arrogant, it doesn't mean you ignore it and resign yourself to being an asshole or a bitch. It doesn't give you the luxury as a leader of just saying, "Hey, I am who I am, take it or leave it because I'll never change."

Instead, you have to be aware of this trait and be open enough to admit it. People tend to give a lot of latitude if you can do just this one simple thing. You can say to people, "Hey, I know I can be a little over confident at times, but it doesn't mean I don't value what you guys bring to the table. Feel free to pull me up if I do this, and I'll try to manage it a little bit better." You can think of ways to make sure your arrogance doesn't impair your judgement or in the way of incorporating input from your people in decision making process.

There are always tools and techniques that you can build around it to make you better, and knowing it's a potential blind spot, ask your trusted advisors for regular feedback. You may be surprised that over a period of time, you can actually train yourself to be less arrogant and more humble.

So where to from here?

Start by working out where you are, know who you are and know what your triggers are. Know what you're strong at, know what you're weak at. And then once you do that, you can deliberately set aside the vision of a realistic model of you as a great leader. If you work on this over time, you're going to find that you are in the VIP ballroom, and your peers who are really, really smart, sitting in the main ballroom, will wonder how you got there. But deep down they'll know, just as we do, that they simply weren't prepared to pay the price of the ticket to be in the VIP ballroom.

All right, that's the end of episode 28. Thanks so much for joining us and remember, at Your CEO Mentor, our purpose is to improve the quality of leaders globally. So if you liked this episode, please share it throughout your leadership network. There's going to be someone that's going to get a lot out of this. I am really looking forward to next week's episode: Winning Without Self Interest.

Until then I know you'll take every opportunity you can to be a No Bullsh!t leader!