Leading in a Different Way

“I like the roller coaster. You get more out of it.”

April 12, 2016 Leading in a Different Way

I like the roller coaster. You get more out of it.”


Last Spring, I was asked to deliver a commencement address at my alma mater. Preparing for my speech forced me to reflect on my life and what brought me to this place. Several themes emerged. Each one supported a journey of learning. Ironic, because graduation is a milestone of learning, and I realized my graduation 30 years ago was just the beginning of my journey. I also realized my chosen way of leading is to be accessible and genuine and learn from everyone I meet regardless of their role. The truth is, we can learn more from the production line worker and shelf stocker than the figurehead we are told to study. The values, ethos and principles needed to guide us through life are in front of us everywhere. We must stay open to discovery every waking minute. In looking back, the themes that stuck with me then and now are curiosity, being yourself, vulnerability as an asset, facing fear and enjoying the ride. Together, they form an approach to life and leadership I affectionately call “full contact.”

I believe genuine curiosity is critical to breakthrough learning and to building relationships. When you are genuinely curious, you look for more and find more, which allow you to see opportunities, solve problems and create real value. And, when you are genuinely curious, people know it. They take it as a sign of respect. It energizes them. So being genuinely curious is a huge attribute for all of us. Interestingly, it takes confidence to be openly curious at work. The canon of “on a need-to-know basis” is prevalent in bureaucracies. But the curious are the ones finding the important new path, innovating and driving change.

When you commit to being yourself, you become vulnerable. You also become more real and approachable. More you, more “authentic.” When you admit you’re human and are honest about your flaws, people trust you. They see you as more authentic and feel more connected to you.* Plus, by shedding the layers, your brightness shines through, allowing your best thoughts and ideas to reach the field of play. Someone I’ve seen use this as a strength is Tim Cook of Apple. Rather than hiding his true self, Tim puts himself out there. It makes him authentic. That’s a strong testament to allowing yourself to be vulnerable.

You can try to avoid facing fear by playing it safe. This takes you out of the action, robbing you of rich experiences of success and failure. Another path is to embrace fear and use it as fuel. Not for the thrill of risk taking, but in the way we experience environmental factors. The great golfer Tom Watson saw the hard blowing wind as a tool to guide his shots. That’s how he won five British opens. Fear itself isn’t bad. Fear energizes and focuses us. It fuels our passion for what we do. I find that by acknowledging my fears, I can better plan to overcome obstacles. Facing fear and taking calculated risks open us up to opportunities hidden behind the flames. Critical advantages are often on the other side.

With everything we face in business and in life, I’m learning how important it is to enjoy the ride. Life is bumpy; why pretend it’s not? There’s a great scene from the movie Parenthood, where the grandmother says, “You know, when I was 19, Grandpa took me on a roller coaster. Up, down, up, down. Oh, what a ride! I always wanted to go again. You know, it was just so interesting to me that a ride could make me so frightened, so scared, so sick, so excited and so thrilled, altogether! Some didn’t like it. They went on the merry-go-round…I like the roller coaster. You get more out of it.”

We can spend time bemoaning the challenges we face, the headwinds in business, our competitors’ threats and our customers’ complaints. Or, like grandma, we can enjoy the ride. Sometimes it’s a game, sometimes the obstacles are unbelievable and sometimes you enjoy the rewards because you opened yourself all the way up and learned something new. That’s a great moment.

These are my themes. I’m glad you’re here and I hope you will follow along. We all have more to learn. TIM

*Authenticity and vulnerability add up to leadership credibility, by Mara Vizutti. The Chronical Herald, January 16. 2016.

*My compliments also to Ms. Brené Brown for guiding me in some of this thinking.