If you had the opportunity to invest in developing one aspect of leadership that might make all the difference throughout your career, what would it be?
When I ask this question of younger executives, most often the answers fall into a category best described as skills – strategic planning, time management, decision-making, financial management and others.
That’s the mistake.
I was at a garden shop a few weeks ago buying lawn fertilizer. I was comparing the ingredient labels when an eager clerk came up. “Looking to get a quick green up of your lawn? You want one with high nitrogen,” he said, perhaps a little too presumptuously.
“Actually,” I said, pointing to the trio of numbers on the label, “I’m more interested in developing the roots, so I’d prefer one with more potash, the middle number. I’m surprised all of them are so low in that.”
“Oh,” he said, a bit puzzled. “We don’t get much demand for that.”
No, I imagine not. It takes time. The development is not readily apparent. It’s hardly showy. No quick, easy payoff.
Last summer was hot. And dry. Many lawns in my neighborhood turned into moonscapes. Mine struggled, but it made it through. Thanks to the potash.
Developing the roots for true growth
The potash for leadership is struggle and failure. It develops character.
Whatever qualities you associate with this notion of character – patience, stamina, courage, empathy, resiliency, steadfastness – it is the element of leadership that is the most durable in times of stress.
It can also be the most mysterious, because we are often least aware of its development at the time, only reflecting on it later. We can’t always trace a clear line of sight between our character and the event and people who shaped it. As a result, we tend to shy away from it as an active, conscious track in our development, hoping that it will rise up as some kind of transcendent way at the right times.
The truth is that character can and needs to be consciously developed, fertilized by the two elements we too often can try to overlook – struggle and failure. The most enduring wisdom is often that which we acquire against our will. Once we understand that, it prompts you to consider whether we ought to consciously pursue experiences that present the prospect of failure as much as success, disappointment as much as achievement.
It is seductive to go for leadership development that offers that quick nitrogen fix, a burst of green that everyone notices. However, the deeper qualities of leadership are those qualities that come through over many seasons, often alone when we face a real challenge, or when the drought comes.