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Not Everyone Can Be a Leader

By: Patrick Sweeney

There are so many leaders who have taken their companies from the business pages to the front page of newspapers. They have raised the profile of their organizations by being indicted, losing fortunes, and losing their way along the way.

Clearly, not everyone is cut out to be a successful leader.

In fact, many of today’s business leaders are not cut out to be leaders at all. Through hubris, the pressures of meeting quarterly financial targets, or just being mired in their old ways, those leaders have lost their direction.

And anyone who follows such leaders will be lost, as well.

So what does it take to lead through today’s exceedingly competitive landscape?

First and foremost, it takes a special compass that can help a leader stay focused on his or her true path. Such a compass helps them lead from within. And helps them stay focused on what is truly important.

Having assessed the qualities that distinguish leaders for more than a half-century, we can tell you that the best leaders share certain attributes. Sure, they are visionary, charismatic, assertive, able to connect with others, innovative, persuasive, resilient, have a need to get things done, and are more than willing to take a risk. But this is not a recipe for leadership.

It is not as if all you need to do is put the proper mix of all these ingredients into a pot, then blend thoroughly, and bake for two-and-a-half hours.

The best leaders identify themselves as leaders. But they don’t get lost in that identity. They know who they are. And they are constantly seeking within themselves and within others to perfect themselves.

Constantly Searching
An example of a leader who is constantly searching—within himself and within others— is Tom Gartland, president of North America of Avis Budget Group. He sees leadership as something he has to continually nurture—within himself and within those around him.

Tom said, “It is my belief that the most important job of a leader is to develop individualized plans for each of your top performers and a succession plan for the organization. This is the single most important role I play, I believe, here at Avis Budget Group.”

He sees his job, as a leader as bringing the right people into the organization and developing their true potential. “With the right people in the right jobs, your success as a leader becomes almost automatic.”

The starting place for Tom is with his top performers.

When he was at the helm of sales for Avis Budget Group, just prior to being promoted to president of North American operations, he developed a benchmark of its top performers to gain a clear understanding of the potential of all the organization’s sales force.

He started off by insisting that the organization’s sales force of over 600 individuals had an in-depth psychological profile matched to their performance reviews and their career aspirations. As Tom explained, “We had in-depth personality profiles conducted for everyone in our sales organization. That gave us a baseline view of each individual’s potential, strengths, and limitations. When we match to their current performance, we are able to view them from where they are now, how we can help them meet their goals, and where we see them moving next, with an eye even further down the road.”

With the blueprint of what his top performers look like, Tom is able to hire people with similar qualities. He wants to make sure that the people he brings on board at Avis have the qualities needed to fit into and excel within the culture. Now and in the future.

Through this process, he said, “We developed a thorough understanding of the unique qualities that distinguished our top performers. Those unique qualities then created a pattern that has become our blueprint for bringing new people into the organization. If a promising applicant shares similar personality dynamics with our top performers, then we become very interested."

He said, “You have to keep in mind that you’re hiring someone for a certain position, but you’re also hiring that individual for the future.”

Knowing everyone’s growth potential is vital to the growth of an organization.

“Right now,” Tom explained, “I have five assistant vice presidents who run Canada and the United States, and each is managing about $1 billion worth of car rental volume. So, if anything were to happen to any of them, I need to know what we would do.

“Our company’s success is based on my having a clear vision and an understanding of who the next leadership team is. Who could be next in line? We need to be absolutely sure that we are putting our people in the right roles along the way, developing their skills so that they’re ready to step up when we go through the promotion process.”

This approach to identifying and developing top talent is not just something that occurs at the highest levels of the organization—not when true leadership is present.

As Tom shared, “Right now, I’m thinking about one of our very best account managers. She is in her late 20s and has been with us for five years. The next promotional decision we make for her can have the potential of impacting her career for 20 years. And it could also have an impact on our company for the next 20 years. So we’ve got to get that right. We have to be committed to her. It is our job to identify our most talented individuals and grow the hell out of them.”

That is not to say that everyone in the organization is built for leadership. While one of the most important aspects of a leader’s jobs is to help uncover the next generation of leaders, it is equally important to develop the potential of all the top performers, regardless of their career path.

When Tom was heading up sales for the organization, he created separate paths for sales people who did not wish or may not naturally have wanted to move into sales leadership. He helped develop other paths that were just as fulfilling for the individuals and meaningful for the organization—including mentoring, regional, and national sales opportunities. And he helped to make it clear to everyone within the organization that these positions were just as prestigious as those of sales leadership.

Ultimately, leadership is about understanding the strengths of the individuals you surround yourself with—as well as their aspirations—and then aligning the two with the needs of the organization.

Tom was able to identify the potential of his key players by implementing an in-depth personality assessment, then gaining insights from consultants who were able to provide perspective and coaching.

Reaching Within Himself
As far as reaching within himself is concerned, Tom is always testing those waters.

As a leader in an extremely competitive environment, he finds himself constantly being challenged. And he is always challenging himself and continually learning in the process.

It is in those difficult moments that leaders test themselves and find out that which they are truly made.

Among the things he has learned about himself, which is very consistent with the leaders we have consulted with from organizations around the world, is a willingness to take risks, as well as to learn from his mistakes, whenever he makes them.

Our studies have shown that when most people experience failure, it threatens their sense of self-confidence and self-esteem. For most people, failure is so painful that they don’t want to hang around it long enough to learn from it. Leaders, such as Tom Gartland, on the other hand, respond to failure with a mindful response.

Interestingly, Lewis Schiff, in his studies recently published in the book Business Brilliant, has found that, for leaders, failure provides “a wellspring of opportunity because every failure produces such a wide variety of unexpected results—lessons, experiences, relationships.” For true leaders, he has found, failure “can be an appealing challenge to shift the ashes and see what can be made of them.”

So, while leading is always about moving forward, it is most importantly about looking within. It is about understanding yourself, your organization, the world at large, and connecting with new possibilities.

True leaders succeed by understanding potential—in themselves and in those they surround themselves with. They understand why there is always a picture of a flower on a packet of seeds. We don’t care what the seeds look like. We want to know what they will become.


About the Author(s)

Patrick Sweeney is president of Catalyst Corporation, a consulting firm.