What Makes Individuals and Leaders Grow?

Reading old articles I’d written but abandoned through the years, I found a few incomplete ones more than 10 years old, covering such dated references as Tan Mom, Swine Flu, and Glee. A number of times, I found that my own views on what I’d written had grown exponentially over time. Which made me wonder: “Why do some leaders grow more than others?” I observed these three things as fueling leadership growth:

1. Life Experiences

I remember saying, “What an idiot!” when Philip Seymour Hoffman died from a drug overdose. I couldn’t understand how he could throw away his life chasing a high when he seemed to have everything the world had to offer. And I held that opinion for many years…until my own daughter Alana died from a heroin overdose. My new world of hurt brought me up to a whole new level of empathy–and action. I started consulting treatment centers, speaking openly about the opioid crisis, and I ghostwrote books for two prominent recovery activists. My opinions about the drug crisis changed due to my own personal tragedy.

“Turn your wounds into wisdom.” ~ Oprah Winfrey

After a loveless marriage to an alcoholic womanizer, Juliette Gordon Low had to start over when her husband passed away in 1905. She didn’t want to see other women trapped as she had felt, so she started looking for ideas to help girls learn practical skills and build character. In 1912, she established the Girl Scouts. Low used her painful personal experiences to foster her own growth–and the growth of 2.5 million girls along the way.

2. Intellectual Curiosity

The best leaders possess intellectually curiosity, a thirst to acquire knowledge and understand how things work. For that reason, you will find top leaders reading, watching TED Talks, or getting hands-on experience.

“Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.” ~ Mahatma Gandhi

Over the last few years, I’ve visited with Jim Collins, Marcus Buckingham, Simon Sinek, Carol Dweck, Barbara Fredrickson, and Malcolm Gladwell to name just a few thought leaders. Of course, the time I spent with these folks was one-sided: I read their books (Well, I did talk with Marcus Buckingham over dinner once, and that was a phenomenal experience). I learned from each of these brilliant minds.

Paul Orfalea’s ADD and dyslexia kept him from learning like most of his fellow-students. During group projects, Orfalea offered to make photocopies of the notes so he wouldn’t be asked to write them. But that doesn’t mean he wasn’t thirsty to learn. His disabilities he calls “learning opportunities” helped him learn from listening, seeing the picture, and not sweating the small stuff. Because of all of the times he photocopied notes, he learned what worked and what could work even better. That’s why in 1970, he founded Kinko’s.

3. What If…? Questions

Early in my career, I spoke at a conference for a group of 400 front-line supervisors at a large corporation. I asked a series of What If Questions:

  • What if the company has been training you to train your own replacements?
  • What if the company were about to grow on multiple fronts and needed leaders willing to relocate to take on more responsibility?
  • What if you’ve not developed anyone to step into your current role?

A supervisor who sat in that meeting told me years later how the questions I asked became a personal challenge for her to mentor others and be ready for opportunities. Within 10 years, using her own series of What If questions, she grew from a supervisor to director of her own office. What If questions drive us to dig within our own experiences to find new ways of thinking and solutions to old problems.

“Don’t live the same day over and over again and call that a life. Life is about evolving mentally, spiritually, and emotionally. ” ~ Germany Kent

Feodor Ingvar Kamprad started selling matches when he was 6 years old in native Sweden. He soon learned he could get them at a better rate if he bought them in bulk. A couple of years later, he expanded his offerings to include fish, Christmas tree decorations, seeds, ballpoint pens, and pencils. Upon finishing high school, his father gave him some money for his good grades, and Feodor used it to start a small furniture business.

Feodor faced several challenges. First, he had dyslexia (see above). Second, as his furniture business grew, manufacturers boycotted him because of his low prices, forcing him to design and build items in-house. Finally, with so much of the operation under one roof, he had limited space.

So he asked himself a what if question that went something like this: “What if we designed furniture that could be stored flat and assembled later?” The answer saved space, reduced costs, and allowed customers to transport their own furniture. Answering that what if made Feodor the 8th richest person in the world, and it made Ikea a household name.

Life experiences, intellectual curiosity, and a willingness to ask what if questions fuel leadership growth. What would you add?

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