There are many ways to learn about leadership. One we may overlook is stories of great leaders—and sometimes leaders who faltered. If great leaders are learners, leadership stories have much to offer.
When I began my current job, I received a copy of Jim Collins’s Good to Great. I enjoyed delving deeply into the stories of companies that, as the subtitle indicates, “made the leap” to greatness. Equally important are Collins’s lessons about why others failed in that effort. Since then, I’ve become a fan of Collins’s work because of those stories. It would be incredibly dull if he just flooded his works with the intensive company research data that documents the actual company performance behind the stories. The stories bring the lessons to life. That’s what differentiates his books from the average business case study. It is through the lessons that Collins helps us to identify strategies we can implement—or avoid—on our path to better leadership. Who can forget the difference between the fox and hedgehog, or leaders who demonstrate humility over hubris? The stories help us move what we learn into long-term memory. We may forget some of the details, but the important lessons stay with us.
Just 20 Miles a Day
Leadership stories can come from anywhere. What makes Collins’s work and that of other notable authors who mine this territory worth reading is the sheer creativity that goes into uncovering and sharing great stories. He then artfully connects them to the research that lends credibility to the findings. A favorite comes from Collins’s latest book, Great by Choice. This story helps the reader understand how a determined, well-prepared leader makes a difference in the outcome, even when other leaders are experiencing similar circumstances. Collins relates the story of Roald Amundsen and Robert Falcon Scott and their near simultaneous expeditions to become the first to reach the South Pole. Collins sets up the story with this introduction:
Amundsen and Scott started their respective journeys for the Pole within days of each other, both facing a roundtrip of more than 1,400 miles into an uncertain and unforgiving environment, where temperatures could easily reach 20˚ below zero even during the summer, made worse by gale-force winds. And keep in mind, this was 1911. They had no means of modern communication to call back to base camp—no radio, no cellphones, no satellite links—and a rescue would have been highly improbable at the South Pole if they screwed up. One leader led his team to victory and safety. The other led his team to defeat and death.
Collins then explains how Amundsen’s leadership style led to success. He paid close attention to detail in his preparation, even to the point of customizing his transport sleds and calculating the number of calories each expedition member would consume each day. Amundsen also practiced discipline and persistence. His team advanced 20 miles everyday, defying any difficult weather conditions—but never more than 20 miles, so as not to induce fatigue. Scott’s group, on the other hand, might go 40 miles one day, then take breaks for a day or two if the weather was bad. In the end, it was Amundsen’s consistent drive forward that made the difference. Scott arrived over a month later, and by the time his team was prepared for the return journey, the Antarctic winter had set in. No one made it back. Collins applies the lessons of the competing expeditions to illustrate how the planning and persistence of leaders at companies like Southwest Airlines and Progressive Insurance led to motivated teams of employees, loyal customers, and satisfied shareholders.
Story of Focus
This story illustrates that leadership lessons can come from almost any time or place in history, not just the world of business—although business leaders have contributed many worthwhile stories. Colorful characters like Steve Jobs are legendary for generating more than a few epic tales. One of my favorite stories about Jobs speaks to the importance of being a focused leader. Spread yourself or the organization too thin, and those excess projects can lead to dysfunction. That’s what Jobs found when he returned to Apple in 1997, 12 years after being fired. Several months of observation revealed a rudderless company in disarray. He called together his managers and told them to stop all production. He then drew a box with four quadrants. On the top he wrote “desktop” and “laptop” over the two columns. He labeled the rows “home” and “business.” He said that Apple would create the best products in each of those four categories and nothing more. We know how the story turned out. Apple went on to produce many other amazing products, but it took that initial discipline to stop wasteful projects. I am reminded that it is critically important for leaders to stay focused on what matters and to lead others in doing the same—and to have the wisdom to decide what not to do.
Finding Leadership Stories
If you like the idea of using stories as instruction for better leadership, your thirst for more stories will grow. Where do you look, particularly if you seek contemporary tales from today’s news? You just need to fine-tune your antennae to pick them up. Leadership columns and blogs work well for me. New Jersey governor Chris Christie’s “Bridgegate” scandal has been all over the news. There are some obvious lessons for all leaders, such as better communication with subordinates or the power of quickly acknowledging a big mistake. Jeffrey Pfeffer, in a post titled “Lessons in Power from the Chris Christie Kerfuffle,” goes beyond the obvious to explore what we can learn about the challenges of managing leadership power. His big takeaway is that when there is a failure, particularly an embarrassing one, it is best to acknowledge it—as Christie did. But then leaders must move quickly to return to their previous state of confidence and leading from strength—which Pfeffer says was a problem for Christie. By retreating and appearing unsure of himself, Christie delayed rebuilding trust and helping others leave the incident behind. Elsewhere in the news, even those who care little for sports may find a good lesson about the importance of preparation in quarterback Peyton Manning’s story. Despite coming up short in the big game, leaders can still gain respect for the level of commitment they bring to the playing field. Leadership stories are all around us. We just have to spot them.
Applying the Lessons
Finding and collecting leadership stories helps both aspiring and experienced leaders to expose themselves to lessons. The danger is falling into the routine of collecting the stories—and enjoying them—but missing the lesson. Finding a good story will feel great, but fight distraction and relish the moment a bit longer. Take out a piece of paper. Jot down your thoughts about the meaning of the story. Think about a time when you could have applied the lesson. For example, if I come across a good story about a difficult decision, I’ll think about what action I might have taken in that situation, or how I might have handled a past decision differently. The act of contemplation will help internalize the lesson so it can permanently change our leadership behavior.
When I find good leadership accounts, I make sure to hang on to them. There’s nothing worse than sort of remembering a story but being uncertain of exact details and unable to find any trace of it. I used to print them out and put them in a folder marked “stories and anecdotes,” but now I just save them to diigo and tag them “leadership” and “stories.” Now that I, like many others, am doing more reading on a smartphone, I’ve incorporated the pocket app into my routine, so I can quickly save good leadership stories on the fly and then store them over at diigo when time allows.
Library leadership stories
Perhaps the best leadership stories are the ones that happen in our own profession. While none of them may find their way into the general leadership literature, we know the good ones when we see them. They feature library leaders who have turned around difficult situations and created library success stories in their communities. It may be the story of a frontline librarian who recognized the need for a valuable service and combined newfound resources with persistence to make it happen. Perhaps it’s just a story about taking a stand for what’s right. They may lack the glamour of the stories of great leaders past and present, but we take inspiration from them. They encourage us to take risks and perform acts of lcourage in our own libraries. They give us the strength to persist for a good cause. They drive us to be better for those we lead. Those are the stories that stay with us.