The One Truth Most Leaders Keep Quiet

The One Truth Most Leaders Keep Quiet 
By David Sturt and Todd Nordstrom

The One Truth Most Leaders Keep Quiet

While our lives and careers can often find themselves in predictable patterns–go to school, get a job, work hard, rise to the top–there’s one little secret that most leaders never like to talk about. It’s a reality that can make us feel vulnerable. But it shouldn’t.

What’s the secret? It’s this: we rose to our leadership positions because we were good at a certain skill, not because we were skilled at leading others. We were promoted because we personally created great results. Now that our job has shifted into a leadership role, we realize that we’re responsible for and expected to excel at skills for which we were never trained: to lead, to inspire, and to motivate other people to become their best.

“I never saw myself as a leader,” he told us. “I just went to work every day and tried to do my best, while helping the people around me become their best.” This a sentiment many of us share.  But these humble words were spoken by David Novak, Founder and CEO of oGoLead and Former Chairman and CEO of Yum! Brands, Inc. “Everyone has the power to be a leader but it’s important to realize that you can’t achieve anything big in life if you try to do it alone, you need to take people with you. We all need people to help us along the way,” added Novak. As one of the largest restaurant companies in the world, Yum! has more than 43,000 restaurants in more than 130 countries and territories–think Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, and KFC. Novak may not have seen himself as a leader, but plenty of others did. He has been recognized as “2012 CEO of the Year” by Chief Executive magazine, one of the world’s “30 Best CEOs” by Barron’s and one of the “100 Best-Performing CEOs in the World” by Harvard Business Review.

Today, Novak is on a mission to help people who want to become better leaders but aren’t getting the leadership development they want. Studies show that 87 percent of managers wish they had received more management training when they first took on the role. Novak created oGoLead as a solution to address those needs by passing on decades of proven learning from running a global organization.

Novak isn’t alone. “I started my career as an ICU nurse and never thought I’d become CEO,” said Laura Robertson who is now CEO of Banner Desert and Cardon Children’s Medical Center in Mesa, Arizona. The hospital is ranked as one of the top five hospitals in Phoenix, and recognized for eight high-performing specialties, according to U.S. News Best Regional Hospitals report. “As a nurse I remember thinking about how I would do things differently if I were in charge,” she said. “I would think about how employees and patients could be treated better, and how we could serve the community better.” She paused, “But I can’t say I ever saw myself as someone’s boss back then.”

Stories like Novak’s and Robertson’s may, at first, seem like unlikely cases: average, hard-working people advancing through the ranks. For some reason, we like to assume that great executives like these were somehow molded from childhood to become phenomenal leaders. But they weren’t. Instead, they honed their craft and skill. And someone noticed. Someone saw their potential to be leaders, whether it was a member of the board of directors, another senior leader, or a marketplace looking for change. We’ve seen it in all industries.

“I never had training on how to be a leader, and frankly leadership is earned not given, so I’m not sure it’s something that can be learned in a classroom,” said Matt Rizzetta, CEO and Founder of N6A, a public relations and social media agency based in New York and Toronto. “I came from an agency background and couldn’t understand why so many failed to see that the lifeblood of a services business is its people. If people are what makes your business tick, then that needs to be the first place you look to invest and innovate. You need to see the correlation between the service product and the internal culture. The two should be interchangeable. If you create a unique and rewarding internal culture for employees, you’ll likely create a unique service experience for customers, and there will be performance benefits for both. That’s why I started my own company–not because I thought I was a leader, but because I knew that by creating a better environment for employees, we would create a better product for clients, and ultimately everybody would win.” It worked. Rizzetta founded N6A during the peak of the economic recession. Since then N6A has been named PRWeek’s 2017 Best Places to Work, a finalist for Digiday’s “Most Innovative Culture” award, and one of the 50 most powerful agencies by the NY Observer.

So what makes a leader great? It’s not having a title, it’s not having training to be a leader, it’s realizing that your job is to ask your employees, “How can I help you become your best?



David Sturt is the executive vice president of marketing and development at the O.C. Tanner Institute and the author of Great Work: How to Make a Difference People Love. Todd Nordstrom is the director of institute content at the O.C. Tanner Institute. Throughout his career, Mr. Nordstrom has been a driving force and voice of business publishing and management sciences, reaching millions of readers in print and online.


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