10 Questions for Leadership Guru Mark Sanborn

0bea2f45-9993-4f17-8fe5-6010ffceca0aSince innovation leadership has become one of the hottest topics in our field, we sought out top leadership expert Mark Sanborn, to get his read on how “leadership” is changing with the rise of the Millennial Generation. Mark is the author of eight books on leadership, including You Don’t Need a Title to Be a Leader, and the New York Times bestselling (22 weeks) The Fred Factor: How Passion in Your Work and Life Can Turn the Ordinary into the Extraordinary, which has sold over 500,000 copies and been translated into over a dozen languages. Sanborn & Associates, an “idea lab” dedicated to developing new leaders, is based in Denver, Colorado and lists among its many clients Harley Davidson, ESPN, Costco and First Data. Full disclosure, Mark Sanborn is a personal friend of the interviewer, but that didn’t stop me from asking the tough questions, as you’ll see below.

RT: What, in your view, comprises “innovative leadership” in today’s world? 


MS: When a leader does something beyond the norm, and it results in greater effectiveness or progress, that person is an innovative leader. Innovative leadership is about leading differently. And let’s not forget that not all differences are positive or productive. The Germans say all progress is change but not all change is progress.

RT: How is leadership changing in organizational life these days? I see leaders currying favor and acting as politicians, in a sort of popularity contest manner. The other thing I’m seeing is the rise of Steve Jobs imitators: heavy-handed, mercurial, but visionary and perfectionistic and impatient for results. What are you seeing?

MS: Don’t confuse style with substance. Machiavellian leaders still exist but they are an endangered species. Here in the U.S. many people are fed up with politics in Washington, D.C. and dislike them even more in the workplace. There are those leaders who either feel forced to be political because of the system they are a part of, or rationalize being political as a strategy. But why not put the same energy and effort into being a principle-based leader who shakes things up for the better.

RT: And what of the mercurial? 

MS: Employees and the business press gave Steve Jobs a great deal of slack because he was a visionary genius. But for anyone short of that, how you get results is as important as the results you get. For the vast majority of successful leaders today and in the future, it will be about influencing and engaging team members to do great work. There’s no room for humiliation or browbeating.

RT: Mark, you work with a lot of different organizations each year. What was the strangest, funniest, most bizarre or inspiring insight you observed in recent years – that you can talk about? [laughs]

MS: Years ago I was contracted by an enthusiastic executive to speak to his team. At the first break I saw a group of [employees] in a huddle talking quietly. I asked, “How’s the program going for you?” There was a long silence and much glancing about before someone spoke up. “What if we believe in everything you are talking about but there is someone in management who is the exact opposite? This manager just doesn’t get it.” After some more delicate inquiry I discovered that this problematic manager was the exec who’d hired me! I’ll never know if he was in denial, putting up a facade or what, but a great irony that I was hired by the problem to create the solution.

RT: You’ve done quite a bit of writing in the area of team leadership. What are your key teachings in this area?

MS: I’ve become convinced that he irreducible minimum for making teamwork work: ask for help when you need it and offer help when you can provide it. If everyone knows what the truly important work of the team is, they can collaborate with each other to achieve it. People who are unwilling to help others aren’t team players, they’re team slayers. And pride surely does go before the fall if you don’t trust your fellow team members or team leader for help when you really need it.

RT: The Good to Great research suggested that the best leaders are not bombastic, but instead lead from behind”. How do you come out on that? 

MS: I’m not a big fan of lead from behind (“Hey, you go first and draw enemy fire. I’ll catch up later.”) I’m not saying that is Jim’s intent, but I put it this way: managers have power over people, but leaders have power with people. We follow a great leader because we want to, not just because we have to. A truly savvy leader should be at the most appropriate place at the right time. That could be leading the charge, supporting from the team from the back or mixing it up with the bulk of the troops. Always/never bromides are usually suspect.

RT: Warren Bennis, the scholar on leadership who died last year, believed that great leaders are not born but made, insisting that “the process of becoming a leader is similar, if not identical, to becoming a fully integrated human being.” both, he maintained, were grounded in self-discovery. I don’t know about you but it seems we are too busy answering emails, rushing around to meet with people we hardly know these days to really do any self discovery and personal growth.

MS: I agree with Bennis. Just because people assume they don’t have time doesn’t short circuit the validity of the statement. Hey, nobody has time for anything; you make time for what is important, whether your family, your health or in this case doing the work of becoming a leader. One of the great paradoxes of leadership I’ve found is that often you can accomplish more by doing less. Learn the critical difference between activity and accomplishment.

RT: Do you see a leadership vacuum today?

MS: There are plenty of leaders out there, the problem with those who are self-absorbed and those who couldn’t lead a group of seven year olds to an ice cream truck (as John Gardner used to say). I see no lack of quantity but there are days I wonder if we have the quality of leaders we need. Courage seems in short supply in many instances. It is risky to make a tough decision and hang your reputation and career on it. That’s why some go for appeasement or vagueness as an alternative to decisive action.

RT: With guys like Elon Musk, Larry Page, Jeff Bezos and others at the helm, seemingly inspired by the late Steve Jobs, do you see a return to visionary leadership?

MS: I see a fascination with visionary leadership, and I’d never say it is a bad thing as long as the leader has the chops to create results. Vision without execution is delusion. Visionary leaders stretch our imagination.

However, we often get enamored with the new and/or sexy. Emerson said, “The excellent is new forever.” Time proven principles need only be applied to the modern context for those principles to work.

RT: Leaders like Herb Kelleher [former Southwest Airlines CEO] and even Jack Welch [former CEO of GE], were idolized by their troops. Are we seeing the end of charismatic leadership in the modern corporation? Who are leaders out there that you admire? 

MS: There will always be charismatic leaders and some of them will be really good and a few pretty awful. Popularity and respect aren’t always the same thing. The leadership at Mardel’s and Hobby Lobby reverse tithe: they donate 90% of their profits to faith-based philanthropy. Yet most people couldn’t name one person in the C-Level suite there. The leaders I admire most are those who are as committed to the common good—for employees, vendors, customers and shareholders—as they are to their own success.

RT: What do you make of the leadership style of the Millennial Generation? I mean here is a generation that has come of age in an environment of distrust, disruption, and early debt. They’ve watched heroes crash and burn (Lance Armstrong, etc.), their parents divorce, the rise of Facebook and the managing of one’s online image, etc. 

MS: Every generation has witnessed some very bad things, whether it was a recession, a war, discrimination or all the very personal tragedies that befall us all. Lance Armstrong made denial an art form, and Bernie Madoff reminded us that there are con artists at the highest levels. But are these here-to-for unseen examples? No. Life experience affects what we become, but we have the power to keep those experiences from determining who we become. We can work together with a bit more harmony by doing two things: first, making an effort to understand different viewpoints, and two, focusing on those values and aspirations we all have in common.

RT: More and more corporations rely on matrix organizational structures to get work done. But this seemingly leads to a lack of bold leadership. It has been said that at GM, until only recently, you could never hold any single individual responsible for a decision. That it was all consensus, committee and faceless — that that’s what led to the Cobalt crisis. 

MS: Any positive overdone becomes a negative. Thirty years ago we believed the world was much more controllable and that if you just got the process and structure right, success would follow. The world has changed a good bit but our understanding of it has changed more dramatically. The world is difficult to control or anticipate, so systems need to be extremely fluid and flexible. The problem is that few big organizations want to abandon those old-school systems and structures that used to work.

RT: How do you study leadership styles? What type of research do you do? 

MS: I’m not very interested in leadership styles, but I am in leadership substance. My research is around what leaders do (behaviors), and what the leader and team members experiences when leadership is done right. Style is like frosting: good frosting makes a difference, but not if the cake is terrible.

RT: Back to Bennis and the Millennials for a final question. Bennis in recent years had become more optimistic about the younger generation’s brand of leadership, characterized by “respect, not just tolerance.” 

MS: Respect is earned. It isn’t awarded based on title or position, but on skill and impact. Many older employees and managers came of age in a time where the title mattered much more than it does now. They can misinterpret a lack of respect for the title as a lack of respect for the person. Collegiality knows no age limits. Treat those you work with as colleagues, regardless of age, and put in the kind of performance that demands respect.