Fierce Leadership: A Bold Alternative to the Worst “Best” Practices of Business Today - Susan Scott (2009)
Crossing the Bold Line
One of the greatest challenges we all face is understanding and embracing our own leadership potential. Even the most highly paid executives struggle with internal questions about their personal effectiveness as leaders. This is normal. Our results, attitudes, beliefs, prejudices, fears, hopes, glories, and broken places have led us all to practices that others celebrate or question, that we ourselves celebrate or question.
At the same time, we are all leaders in some capacity or another. It doesn’t matter if we have the title or not. But there is a profound difference between having the title and being the kind of leader to whom people are drawn and to whom people commit at a deep level. The former are just leaders, while the latter are fierce leaders. These are the leaders others look to for advice and opinion and gratefully follow wherever they go. These are the leaders who engage others whenever they are present. Call them natural leaders, if you will. I would call them natural, period.
Fierce leaders aren’t born that way; crossing the bold line between leadership and “fierce” leadership takes courage and work. It requires that you hone your faith in others and in yourself. Not blind faith, but rather the faith that comes from paying attention, being present. Crossing the line requires that you screw your courage to the sticking place and summon all your skill, reach, in fact, for skills you don’t yet have.
Replacing worst “best” practices with fierce practices is challenging, and that’s the point. And, so what? You cannot differentiate yourself or your company by taking the well-worn, familiar path.
Joseph Campbell explained that the “hero” is heroic because at some point he steps off the path that everyone else is on and heads into the woods where there is no path and no indication of help. But he does it anyway. It’s that first step into the woods that is the heroic moment. And then everything changes. Help appears that is exactly what he needs, when he needs it. It is there for him alone.
What is the path you have to step off of?
In February of 2006, I was in Kenya for twelve days—three working in Mombasa, then nine on photographic safari with my granddaughter, Maizy, who had just turned nine. We knew we were in strange and wonderful territory when we spotted two giraffes as we landed at the Mombasa airport.
Mombasa was hot and humid. I was there to train fifty-five executives and country heads with CARE International—courageous, brilliant people accomplishing impossible tasks in difficult, sometimes dangerous environments—in the art of fierce conversations. Two weeks before we arrived from all points on the compass, the head of CARE in East Africa and his wife had been driving home from church when a car pulled in front of them. He gave the robbers his money and the keys to his car. The money wasn’t as much as they wanted, so they made him kneel and in front of his wife, as he pleaded for his life, they shot him. So that day, there was a palpable sense of grief and sorrow. And incredible courage. Most people I know don’t have to worry about things like this.
At the training session, there were many languages spoken, interpreters, headphones. Maizy asked to sit in, since she’d never seen me “in action” before. At lunch someone told her it would be okay if she drew on the flip chart in the back of the room. During the next break we noticed a green giraffe named Bob …
… who loves to have conversations, thinks that a conversation is a relationship, and has had many fierce ones (see the picture of Bob on the next page).
Everyone loved Bob, because Bob got it. Someone said, “From now on, let’s prompt each other by asking, “What would Bob do?”
With a simple drawing, my granddaughter had inspired these brave, smart, powerful, and successful leaders from around the world to practice the art of fierce conversations. No doubt she’ll be a fierce leader herself someday.
The next day, Maizy and I headed to Nairobi. A gentle, professional young man named Zacharia Njau (“Zack”), was our knowledgeable guide and hilarious companion as we flew over grasslands and mountains in twelve-seater airplanes, navigated muddy ravines on game drives, and shared exotic foods for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. (That’s Zack and Maizy in the photo on the next page.)
Picture gentle people speaking English with the soft accent of those for whom Swahili is the mother tongue. Imagine a cozy cottage with a view of elephants. An “international airport” consisting of tarmac and a gazebo. A luxurious tent above a river filled with hippos. The soft skin behind the ears of the only tame black rhino in Kenya. Standing on tiptoe to offer bits of banana to colobus monkeys on the roof of a tea plantation. Drifting in a hot air balloon through the early-morning smoke above a Maasai village, then breakfasting in the company of giraffes.
Maizy and I now know what an embarrassed ostrich looks like. One day a female sprinted down the road, then tripped and sprawled right in front of our vehicle. Once we knew she was okay, we couldn’t stop giggling, as she collected herself, shook her feathers, and—we were certain—pretended she’d done it on purpose, just for our benefit.
We know the location of a stork nest—at the Mount Kenya Safari Club—that boasts a golf club. We saw it happen and applauded the stork’s theft, strength, and chutzpah. We’d be willing to bet there are sunglasses, cameras, and an iPhone or two in that nest. Shiny objects are apparently seductive even to storks.
We straddled the equator, one foot in the Northern Hemisphere, the other in the Southern. We forded rivers, mud up to the rims, in the Land Cruiser, went off road to get a closer look at a cheetah, hung out with a pride of lions preparing for the evening’s hunt, and drove slowly into the middle of the real “peaceable kingdom” in a valley in Amboseli National Park. We turned off the motor and sat quietly, surrounded by thousands of zebras, gazelles, wildebeests, eland, crown cranes, and warthogs, serenely being themselves. They didn’t mind or fear us. Many walked past us a few feet away.
I know I’m in the conversation business, but while on safari, I didn’t really want to talk with anyone except Maizy, Zack, and our driver. So I spent twelve days in Maizy’s sweet company, mostly with my own thoughts and only the edge of others’, luxuriating in silence broken only by birdsong or the grumble of hippos returning to the river after feeding in midnight fields. Some words lose their meaning in the Maasai Mara. Like tax return. Others take on new ones: Beauty.
Best of all, we spent time in a Maasai village, talking with the chief, visiting with families, communing with cows. In these villages, the huts are brown (made of cow dung and mud), the ground is brown (the cows trample it at night), the people are brown. There is no electricity, no running water. No toys, no shelves or closets filled with clothes, dishes, stuff. There is no art on their walls; there are no walls! The people are the art, each of them uniquely adorned, living serenely in the official middle of nowhere.
So what does any of this have to do with fierce leadership?
It inspired a few epiphanies.
While it was tempting to romanticize the Maasai, I did not fantasize about living in a hut of dung and mud. I did fantasize about acquiring their demeanor, their serenity. All that time to think, to really be awake, alive, to focus on relationships, human connections, rather than arbitrary, empty notions of fulfillment and success. The freedom in that.
But just a few days later, back in my familiar world, with its own kind of beauty and its own brand of crazy, I found myself turning on the TV again, getting caught up in the latest celebrity news. What occurred to me was how big a difference there is between a celebrity and a hero, between the people our culture follows and emulates and the leaders in cultures like the Maasai. So I began thinking about how to somehow hold the Kenya experience, how to let it inform whatever came next, how to share some of my learning with others who work in a typical corporate culture.
Maizy and I spent a lot of time simply looking while we were in Kenya, and this taught me a valuable lesson. All leaders should spend more time looking and listening than they do talking and selling. More time laughing than frowning. More time delighting one another than irritating one another. More time embracing change than clinging to old ways, under the delusion that motion and direction are the same thing. And to do this, we must become fierce.
For me, there is a pull between the two definitions of fierce: fierce as in real, honest (and often sweet), and fierce as in fiery. You might be surprised to learn that the fiery side of me is a fan of the “haka,” the ritualistic, fierce “dance” of New Zealand rugby players, which involves slapping the palms of their hands on their thighs, rhythmically drumming their feet on the ground while locking eye contact with an opponent, and ending by drawing a finger across their throats. The message is clear. But I love the haka and look for the player who, though he makes the same movements as the other players, is focusing on gathering strength, presence, and intensity within himself. His strength doesn’t come from trying to intimidate the other side or from sending violent signals. Like a tai chi master, with each movement, he gathers strength from within, where it remains. He is centered. He gives his strength to the team.
Yesterday, I asked a prospective client a question about his leadership that required some potentially catastrophic introspection. He said, “Honesty isn’t really a problem with you, is it?”
“No,” I admitted. “And I’ve yet to meet a client who initially considers this an asset.”
We laughed and fell silent, and then he answered the question. During the conversation, we began to connect and agreed to work together. This was a conversation that embodied both definitions of fierce.
Last night, I was talking with Maizy about my friendship with people who hold very different beliefs from mine. Their thoughts are not my thoughts. Nor mine theirs. What is right for one person may not be right for another. When I told Maizy that I was trying to be open-minded, she giggled and said, “Your brains might fall out.”
I suspect my brains have fallen out, and I suppose I should put them back in, but the fact is, my head isn’t on business as usual, it’s on business as it could be.
It is not enough to be a leader. This world is full of leaders who cause us to wonder how in the world they achieved that position. I want a world full of great leaders. I want you to be a great leader, a fierce leader. I want us all to stop thinking only in terms of accomplishments, of task and completion, of beating the competition, of gathering income and merchandise, of winning praise, and instead, live our lives forging the deepest relationships we can with ourselves and with one another. I want us to respond to adversity by deepening our engagement in our lives. It isn’t complicated.
We’ve got to make connections—at a deep level. Create them. Every day. On purpose. Make more and more of them. Connect the people in our homes and businesses and cities and countries, so that we and our children and our colleagues and customers breathe connection in and out like oxygen. Souls rising. Resulting ultimately in that elusive concept we call peace on earth.
I won’t settle for less. I am trying to do my part. I really am.
Someone recently asked me, “If Fierce were a car, what kind of car would it be?” My answer was immediate, with a big grin: “A Toyota Safari Land Cruiser. That sucker can go anywhere!”
And so can you.
For you, for me, in our particular companies, on our particular fields, whether small or large, domestic or global, the progress of the world truly does depend on our progress as individuals now. And if we are to cross the bold line into the territory of fierce leadership, we must do our own version of the haka, gathering strength, honing it, sharing it.
I’ll leave you with a comic strip, Mutts.
Two birds sit on a wire.
“I wrote a NEW song!” one says.
“A NEW song!?! But we’ve been imprinted in our hearts to sing the SAME song for thousands of generations.” “Yes, but mine ROCKS!”
The practices of fierce leadership can be scary—but they rock. They sing to the soul and want to change us.
We could talk about them all day, but where they live is out there in the marketplace, in the hallways, offices, meeting rooms, living rooms. This is a good time to remember that like attracts like. When we embrace higher practices, we are soon surrounded by higher practices. When we indulge in inferior practices, we can expect to produce inferior results. My hope for you is that you will keep an open heart with others and serve as a conduit for deep connection. Don’t talk about it—do it, be it. Your song will rock because the grand sum of your fierce “practices” will create an incredible workplace, enduring relationships, a unique, satisfying life you would not gladly change for another. State of the art; state of the heart. Laminated in bliss.
Love is a practice, too. Give it a try. When outside influences are challenging, allow your quiet heart to lead you. Let me know how it’s going. You can reach me at email@example.com. Standing by.
Conversations I Need to Have