August 2009

John R. Ryan on Leadership

Author: Frank Dunne, Jr.

One of my favorite movies to watch again and again is the miniseries, Band of Brothers. Yes, I like that it’s a war picture with lots of stuff getting blown up, but that’s not why it’s a great movie. It’s great because it has great characters—real heroes and leaders—and they’re real people. It’s a true story.

There’s a scene where Captain Ronald Speirs charges out under heavy fire to join up with Easy Company, who were pinned down during an assault on a town held by the Germans. Easy’s new commanding officer had lost his nerve and stopped giving orders. The attack stalled, and Easy Company was as good as dead.
Major Richard Winters’s order was simple, “Speirs, get out there and relieve Lieutenant Dike!” No questions. No hesitation. Not a blink of the eye. Speirs joined the fight, took control, and led the charge. Easy Company took the town.

It’s one of those scenes that leaves you feeling like you’ve just slammed six cups of coffee, but it’s also pretty thought provoking when you consider that it’s based on an actual event. First, you’ve got Maj. Winters ordering Speirs, a platoon leader, safe in his foxhole, to take charge of an entire company in the middle of a firefight that was already going badly. Then, Speirs gets a bunch of guys who are scared, exhausted, hungry, wounded, and sick of seeing their buddies get killed, to follow him into the enemy’s teeth.

Do you think you could do that? Or are people like Maj. Winters and Capt. Speirs a special breed, born with something in their DNA that most of us don’t have?
I had the opportunity to explore that question with John R. Ryan, President of the Greensboro, North Carolina-based Center for Creative Leadership (CCL)—one of the world’s top executive education organizations as rated by BusinessWeek and the Financial Times. Interestingly, Ryan says that the leadership qualities necessary to lead soldiers into battle are the same qualities that allow a shift manager in a coffee shop to direct an employee to mop the floor without feeling demeaned.

The difference between guys like Winters and Speirs and the rest of us is raw courage and things like that, but it’s not leadership potential.
Ryan was in Hilton Head to speak in May as part of the Chamber of Commerce’s Executive Leadership Series. His résumé certainly reads like that of a guy with some leadership potential: Chancellor of the State University of New York; Superintendent of the U.S. Naval Academy; retired Vice Admiral and Squadron and Wing Commander in the U.S. Navy. I was expecting a bombastic, chandeliers-rattle-when-he-speaks kind of personality. Instead, I found Ryan to be a soft-spoken, humble person who would rather talk about his parents and his twin brother (also an Admiral in the Navy) than his own accomplishments.

“Leaders are not born; they are made.”
Many of us don’t realize our own aptitude for leadership because we were never trained or encouraged to tap into that potential. We access that potential by tapping into what Ryan calls the “growth mindset,” which basically means you don’t impose, or let others impose, limits on what you can achieve. The opposite is a “fixed mindset,” like that of an aspiring engineer who fails Physics 101 and decides, “Oh, well. I guess I’ll never be an engineer,” because of that one setback.

Ryan believes that as a society, we teach too much fixed mindset and not enough growth mindset. “We tend to put people into buckets,” he said. “One of the things we take for granted is that we think we have limited potential, but in reality, if we have this growth mindset, it can be incredibly powerful.”

Leaders don’t develop their growth mindset alone, though. Mentoring and coaching are critical elements in unlocking one’s leadership ability. “Another thing that most folks don’t do enough is to look at how others see them,” said Ryan. “We don’t spend enough time listening to others tell us what they think we do well, and what they think we can do better, so we never do anything to improve in those areas. We may not even learn that we need improvement in those areas.”

“The most effective leaders don’t talk a great game; they live a great game.”
We tend to associate charismatic personalities with leadership, but this is often a mistake. Ryan says that quiet leaders are some of the best leaders, and there are studies and statistics to prove it. “You don’t think you’re charismatic? Big deal. Are you authentic? Can you be trusted? Can you communicate? Do you live up to what you write and talk about? Those are the most important things,” he said.
“The best leaders of sustainable growth are not charismatic. Our data says that they have a sense of humility. They feel privileged to be in their positions and feel a tremendous sense of responsibility to their colleagues and are driven by the mission, not by headlines,” said Ryan. “In the Navy, the best leaders weren’t necessarily people who talked a lot, it was what they did that mattered. That’s what leadership is. The most effective leaders in any area of society are not people who just talk a great game, they live a great game. They’re what we call authentic leaders.”

“Believe in yourself.”
Of course, none of it is going to work if you don’t believe it yourself. A growth mindset and all the coaching in the world will get you nowhere if you don’t persist through setbacks. “The single thing that successful people have in common is persistence, and this persistence comes from believing that you can make incremental improvements,” Ryan said. “Sure, you’ll have setbacks, but you’ll learn from them. Coaching and mentoring the growth mindset leads to persistence, which leads to success.”

This is good advice whether or not you aspire to lead others. You still have to lead yourself through your life, and your results will probably be a lot better if you go through it with a growth mindset. You don’t have to become the lead dog, but you can still change the view.

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