Life lessons build better leaders

What Made jack welch Jack Welch: How Ordinary People Become Extraordinary Leaders

By Stephen H. Baum,

Crown Business, $32

I used to joke that my kids could do anything they wanted when they grew up so long as they became doctors.

But then my wife started to shoot me the look. "Why put that kind of pressure on our children when they haven’t even started elementary school," she’d ask in a way that was less a question and more an indictment.

Point taken. So, like a good parent, I now pledge my unconditional support for whatever life journey my pride and joy choose to take.

Actually, there’s one condition. I want my kids to be leaders. I’m not talking Fortune 500 celebrity CEOs who send their parents on world cruises and buy them retirement condos in the Florida Keys and the Muskokas. I’m talking about my kids being leaders in the community. Making a difference wherever they wind up putting down roots.

I don’t want my kids to be standing on the sidelines saying that something should be done. I want them to be the first to roll up their sleeves and ask "what can I do to help?". I want them to jump right in and never shy away from a challenge. I want them to always believe that anything’s possible and to remember that doing the impossible usually just takes a little longer.

I’m not being unreasonable here. Everyone — my kids, your kids, you and me — we all have the potential in us to be leaders. There’s no elusive leadership gene. You don’t have to be born into the right family, be blessed with the right connections or be the smartest kid in your class.

What’s more, it’s never too late to become a leader. So you weren’t the captain of your peewee soccer team, high school president or a senior executive before your 30th birthday? No worries.

Leaders are made and a surprising number are late bloomers, says CEO coach and author Stephen Baum, whose drawn on years of research and personal conversations with some of the great leaders of our times.

"One of the first things I noticed in my research is how far all these leaders had come from their beginnings. It’s astonishing. With only a couple of exceptions, they started out not much different from the rest of us. Their beginnings were ordinary, as were their families."

Take Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric. Welch’s father was a train conductor. His mother stayed home. Welch spent a summer working a drill press and later joined GE as an engineer.

So what turns ordinary people into extraordinary leaders? Baum credits something called archetypal shaping experiences. It’s those unexpected life moments that put us to the test. Baum’s come up with a short list of 10 experiences:

1. Swimming in water that’s over our heads, where we take personal risks without having a clue as to what we’re doing or if it’ll all pan out.

2. Making tough choices.

3. Getting to the root of a seemingly intractable problem that leads to a golden opportunity.

4. Helping others grow and perform exceptionally.

5. Getting others to buy in by first winning their hearts and minds.

6. Connecting with others and understanding what motivates them.

7. Building a team and getting average members to perform like superstars.

8. Getting good at thinking, talking and acting on our feet.

9. Developing a finely tuned "crap detector" to weed out folks whose words and behaviors aren’t what they pretend them to be.

10. Learning to look in the mirror and honestly assess our values, beliefs and behaviors.

Most of us look at these experiences and say "why bother?". We hold back or we’re afraid to stray beyond our comfort zone. Leaders say "why not?" and jump in without a lot of self-doubt or second thoughts.

"If you aspire to a leadership role, you must seize these experiences, use them to test and develop your leadership core. You must take even the most ordinary situations and turn them into extraordinary moments of personal growth."

That personal growth will help you develop what Baum says are five core leadership traits: the appetite to take charge, character and integrity, the confidence to seek challenges and embrace risk, the capacity to act and the ability to engage and inspire others.

"The link between shaping experiences and leadership traits is simple," says Baum. "When you have a shaping experience, your gut instincts and your patterns of thought change forever. Experience changes habits.

Shaping experiences make you the home-run hitter, seeing the challenge clearly as it roars down toward you and meeting it adroitly while others swing and miss or don’t swing at all."

So here’s a thought. As parents, we should seek out ordinary experiences that will help us and our kids become extraordinary leaders. And just imagine what could happen in our community if everyone stopped saying "something should be done", started asking "what can I do right now to help make Hamilton an even better place to live, work and play?" and then took on leadership roles in making it happen.

Published by

Jay Robb

I've reviewed more than 500 business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999 and worked in public relations since 1993.

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