There’s a joke about a salesman who is driving along the highway and sees a sign, “Talking Dog for Sale.” He rings the bell and the owner tells him the dog is in the back yard. He goes into the back yard and sees a mutt sitting there.
“You talk?” he asks.
“Yep,” the mutt replies.
“So, what’s your story?”
The mutt looks up and says, “When I discovered this gift I was pretty young and wanted to help the government. So I told the CIA about my unique talent and in no time they had me jetting from country to country, sitting in rooms with spies and world leaders, because no one figured a dog would be eavesdropping. I was one of their most valuable spies eight years running.
“But the jetting around really tired me out, and I knew I wasn’t getting any younger and I wanted to settle down. So I signed up for a job at the airport to do some undercover security work, mostly wandering near suspicious characters and listening in. I uncovered some incredible dealings there and was awarded a batch of medals. Had a wife, a mess of puppies, and now I’m just retired.”
The salesman is amazed and asks the farmer what he wants for the dog. The farmer says, “Ten dollars.”
The guy says he’ll buy him, but asks the owner, “This dog is amazing. He’s worth a fortune. Why on earth are you selling him for only $10?”
The owner replies, “Because he’s a liar.”
Everyone is talented, original, and has something to offer the workplace where they are employed. The problem is that most people treat themselves and their employees like this old farmer treats his talking dog. We are so focused on the weakness and fixated on fixing that weakness that we completely miss the talents and the strengths and wonder why our employee engagement scores are so low.
The poet William Blake said, “He who knows not his own genius has none.” Leadership is, in large part, helping people discover – and unleash – their genius. Fit people; don’t fix people.
Here are five ways to tap into the genius in yourself and others:
- Look for people’s strengths: What you focus on is what grows. Start asking three simple questions of every one of your employees. Start to have the conversations. Give some feedback. Listen.
- What are your strengths?
- What do you do better here than anyone else?
- What is unique about you?
- Invest in a formal inventory to discover your strengths and help others discover theirs. The best inventory I have found is: gallupstrengthscenter.com
- Track your energy. What energizes you? What depletes you? What fills you up? What’s working for you? What’s not? Today, it’s not about time management; it’s about energy management. Your energy level is a great indicator of how aligned you are to your genius.
- Delegate your weakness – at least whenever possible. Chances are, there is somebody in your organization that is good at what you aren’t. Talk it up. Discuss where you can pass on your weakness to somebody who has it as a strength.
- Let go of perfection. It’s unrealistic to expect that a hundred percent of your job be in your area of genius. What’s important is that at least a percentage of what you do is what you are great at. This is where the inspiration and the engagement lie. Keep working toward increasing the circle of strength and the time your employees spend there, and watch how engagement and productivity start to substantially increase.
I always love working with teachers. Like every profession, there are good teachers and bad teachers, but I have learned a lot over the years about leadership from having teachers in my leadership development programs. In Oprah’s final show, she introduced and praised her grade four teacher, an early “liberator” who made her feel valued. Think about your own teachers. There are those who just meet the curriculum requirements and help you get into the next grade, while others inspire you, build your character, and mentor you to be a better person, not just a better student. And think about the bosses you’ve had. Some merely help you get your work done, some get in your way, but some change your life. Some help you be a better employee, while others help you be a better person.
How is it that some teachers are merely teachers, but others are leaders, mentors, and life-changers? And how is it that some bosses are merely bosses, while others influence and build your moral fiber, model and teach new attitudes and behaviors, and create a constructive legacy for future generations? It is this distinction that makes a “mentor leader.”
While there are many leadership practices that amplify one’s impact on others, “mentor leaders” possess three qualities of leadership that exemplify their presence:
1) Leaders who make a difference are authentic. They are human, and humble, and present. They also aren’t perfect or attempt to create an illusion of perfection. To impact others, you can’t be phony. People will see right through it. By being who they are, they create a space where others are inspired to also be authentic. Authentic people love what they do and are open to learning about themselves. They are inspired by a purpose and a passion and as a result, they inspire others.
2) Leaders who make a difference are accountable. They can be counted on and don’t make promises they aren’t prepared to keep. They create a place where blame is viewed as a waste of time. They have high standards, both for themselves and those around them. It’s inspiring to be around people you can count on. You aren’t a leader until someone says you are, and you won’t earn the credibility to influence and be trusted if people can’t count on you.
3) Leaders who make a difference care. They care about their work and they care about the people around them. They understand that leading is largely a matter of caring about people, not manipulating or controlling them. Leaders who care measure their success by the trust they build and the value they bring to the lives of others. They are committed to serve. Mentor leaders know that their work is a means to a higher end and put people above products and processes. It’s about changing lives.
Great leadership goes well beyond merely “getting the job done,” and cannot be reduced to technique or position or power. Great leadership inspires others and comes from the strength of one’s identity and integrity – their presence. When teachers possess this presence and inspire it in their students, we are truly fortunate to have them in our lives. The same goes for the leaders in our life and in our work who can help us reach unimaginable potential.