Becoming a Leader

A former student came to see me.  He was scheduled to be in another part of Michigan but indicated that he wanted to make a special trip to Ann Arbor because he had something he felt strongly about and he wanted to share it with me.  I told him I would be glad to see him.

He is an executive in his early forties.  Prior to attending our Executive MBA program he worked in one of the most aggressive firms in the Fortune 500.  He entered my class believing he was already a leader and wondered if there was anything to gain by taking the required course.

One of his assignments was to become a mentor, not a normal mentor, but a transformational mentor, a mentor who radically alters the outlook and the capacity of another person.  Like many of his colleagues in the class, my former student failed to alter the person he selected.  This happens often.  I give the difficult assignment for a reason.  The failure to help another person transform often brings humility and openness to notions that experienced executives often are not willing to entertain.

In his case the failure made the student aware that what he thought was leadership was really management.  He knew how to be an authority figure in a hierarchy.  He did not know how to change the fundamental mindsets held by other people.  He did not know how to change behavior so as to achieve collective excellence.  Because of his failure in the assignment, his interest grew and he reread all the books and reexamined everything we covered.  He ended up valuing the concepts and was committed to live them.

He told this part of the story with a sense of gratitude.  Then he grew even more sincere.  He told me he wanted me to understand how important the course was in his life and he shared a story.  As he did so, a sacred feeling filled the room.

At the end of the EMBA program he took a position in another large firm.  He was given responsibility for a change project of over 100 million dollars in magnitude.  An analysis suggested it would take seven years.  He was asked to do it in three.  Others who were involved were making assumptions of change management.   None seemed to understand what he now understood about change leadership.

He decided that if he was going to succeed, he would have to acquire moral power by living principles of higher purpose.

The first thing he did was use a tool from the class that was designed to help him examine his values.  In doing so, he made a counter intuitive decision.  While he was facing the greatest time pressures he had ever faced, he determined to go to the gym every day and to eat only healthy foods.    He determined to stay connected to his wife and children.  These things were the opposite of what he would have normally done.

The project was designed by executives and consultants.  They laid out the plan and they expected the workers to implement it.  My former student knew the process would not work.  He knew he needed to be other focused.  He needed to connect with, understand and build mutual trust.  He determined to spend long hours listening to the people.  He listened to their fears.  He shared his own.  He clarified that fact that he needed them.  As this process unfolded he developed a relationship of increasing understanding and trust.

This process allowed him to become externally open.  As he worked with the lower level people, he allowed them to constantly teach him.  These people saw hundreds of issues the planners did not see.  The issues ranged from safety to cost. He joined with these lower level people in co-creating revised plans, plans everyone could believe in.

The impossible change project was completed successfully.  He said that in the EMBA program he learned valuable tools in every class from marketing to finance, but he now understands that leadership is the tool belt that holds all the other tools in place.  He said that leading the change process not only altered the company, it also altered him.

He now sees himself in an entirely new light.  He feels clear about his purpose and he is living as a self-empowered person.  He told me that next year he plans to quit.  His goal is to find a company that is struggling.  He wants to acquire such a company and transform it.  He wants to connect the people to a higher purpose and he wants to build a positive culture in which all the people can flourish.  He did not speak of these desires as if they were a dream, he spoke of them as if they were already a reality.  I was deeply touched by his visit.


  • How did he know the plan would not work?
  • Why did his strategy work?
  • What does this case teach us about becoming a leader?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?


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