Leaders have a tremendous amount of influence on their organizations and that influence can be positive or negative, depending on the skills of the person at the helm. Contrary to what many believe, leaders are not born. Rather, they are made through many years of experience, practice and learning. Throughout my lifetime, I’ve read books and listened to speakers who motivated, inspired or educated me to become a stronger leader, but some of the best leadership lessons came from unexpected sources.
If you want to stretch your capabilities, step away from the traditional leadership library and consider these unorthodox exercises:
1. Crawl under people’s homes.
During high school, my first job was working for my dad, who was an electrician. Because I was smaller than he was, I had the unique pleasure of running electrical lines in the mud under houses and in hot attics, usually accompanied by dead rats, black widow spiders and other unpleasant company. As you can imagine, I wanted to get out of those spots as quickly as possible, so I learned how to be efficient.
Fast forward to today, and I apply that same thinking to business processes: How can I make meetings more efficient? How can I support upper management so it can focus on mission-critical activity? How can I empower my sales team to make decisions without unnecessary paperwork or approvals? Concentrating on the moment and knowing what is important will help foster an effective environment.
2. Perfect your arm bar.
Over 15 years ago, I began practicing mixed martial arts (MMA) because I wanted to learn new skills while maintaining my physical fitness. What I didn’t anticipate was the mental benefits that the practice of MMA provides. There’s something humbling about sparring with a partner and learning a new skill or technique in the process.
To be an effective leader, one must be both a teacher and a student, always learning new skills and developing existing ones. The process of repetition teaches patience and perseverance. A black belt is a white belt that never quit.
3. Be more like Han Solo than Luke Skywalker.
Especially for people in the technology field, Star Wars is a classic, and the gregarious Han Solo stands out over the brooding Luke Skywalker. The reality is that many leaders take themselves too seriously. Make no mistake, it can be difficult to lighten up, relax and unwind when you have the responsibility of running a company. But more than anyone in the organization, the behavior of the president or chief executive officer influences the entire company culture. You have to find ways to relate to your employees and have fun with them.
For example, when employees take vacations, I will organize an office “remodeling” project. Past themes have included “Gilligan’s Island,” “Kermit joins the Army” and “Golfing at Saint Andrews.”
Leading organizations and people is hard work. No matter how much formal training and professional development you invest in, some of the most useful skills come to you from unlikely scenarios. Always be ready to learn leadership lessons wherever you may be — at the office, in the classroom or under a house.