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Heroic Leadership - by Lynn Ledford

We have never needed heroic leadership more than we need it today. We need honesty and fortitude. We need accountability. Vision. Compassion. We need heroic leadership –and it begins with me. It begins with all of us.

A heroic leader has distinct super powers. Wonder Woman has super human speed, strength, durability and reflexes. Superman has x-ray vision, speed, resilience and the gift of flight. Sue Storm can manipulate light waves and make herself invisible. As business leaders, we can take some cues from the Super Heroes.

5 Super Powers of a Heroic Business Leader

1. Super Vision

The best leaders can see through walls. They see around corners. They know what is out there and they can see what is coming. In business, great vision is not a magical power. It is a been there done that power. Great leaders have experience – good experiences, horrible experiences and important experiences. What distinguishes great leaders from the masses is that they learn from their experiences and adapt. Great leaders take notes. They study. They change their patterns. When a parent tells me that we should convert part of our viewing area into a spin cycle area for parents, well, I can see through that wall. With clarity. My super vision reminds me that viewing area is prime real estate. I am able to see that I can sit 25 parents in the space of 5 spin cycles. My experience tells me that kids climb up on things. And parents fall off of things. And spin cycle have to cleaned. And repaired. And insured. And no tuition will be generated in a cycle area. Been there done that super vision.

2. Super Hearing

There are two hearing skills that define a heroic leader. The first is the ability to hear things most people cannot. The second is the intuitive hearing that allows a leader to detect what is not being said.

Wolverine has super hearing. His hearing is so refined that he can detect changes in a person’s heartbeat and determine if they are lying. Super Girl and Gladiator are able to block out surrounding noises and zero in on certain sounds with incredible focus.

Heroic leaders in our industry are able to hear beyond the chaos, the distractions, the random voices and the loud voices and listen to what is important. When two angry team parents demand a meeting, insisting that that the move up process is unfair and adamant that the are speaking for all of the parents, a leader with super hearing knows that the situation must be slowed and that he or she must listen to more voices. Heroic leadership does not fold to the loudest voice or the first voice but seeks out and focuses on the most important voice. The heroic leader knows that the truth, whether good or bad, is the most important voice in the room.

Super hearing allows leaders to detect what is not being said. Astute leaders are able to pick up the slightest of nuances in a conversation. They are attentive to every detail and proactively intuitive toward what is not being said. They can get to the heart of a person’s desire or need… or fear… or personal agenda perhaps… to get to what they are really thinking or what they are not saying.

How do we develop super hearing? Practice. Great listening is honed when we conscientiously engage with people and focus on what they are saying. It is a learned skill. Certainly we can look to the classic cues of voice tone, body language and frequent pauses. We can temper that with the knowledge that some people, even truthful, genuine people, do not necessarily look you in the eye and other more practiced speakers may exaggerate the hold of eye contact. Great listeners take the time to study and know their team. They know that the gym’s accountant rambles when she is happy, but when the team coach rambles, it means he is unsettled, something is wrong and he is not saying what is really on his mind.

Being able to hear what is not being said requires an investment in your environment. We must be invested in the people around us, the work going on around us, the customers around us and the business taking place around us. We need to spend time working along side our team. We need to be at the table. We need to come out of our office at lunch. We need to show up. We need to stay until the end. Being invested is what allows a heroic leader to determine that the customer service leader, who says she loves her job, does not mean it anymore. Being invested allows us to determine that the team athlete, who says that everything is fine, is not. Being invested allows us to detect that the level 6 coach is ready for more responsibility and the part time coach who just graduated would be perfect for a management position. Being invested gives is the power to hear what is not being said.

Kryptonite to the Listening Superpower
Every hero has a weakness. There are three behaviors that are the kryptonite to listening. A leader who engages these behaviors will never master the power of super hearing.

The Interrupter. Who interrupts? Ha! Everyone, right? Actually, no. Leaders who have mastered the super power of listening do not interrupt. They are disciplined, practiced and dedicated to their skill. Be wary of these three forces of weakness.
    The One-Upper Interrupter. “I was thinking of adding a few more preschool classes in the mornings so ------“ “OH! We just built out a whole new preschool gym. We 3,200 square feet and opened 18 new classes already! It was long overdue.” The One – Upper Interrupter highjacks conversations and “one-ups” the original speaker. Dialogues become monologues.
    Leaders who don’t listen will
    eventually be surrounded by
    people who have nothing to say
    Andy Stanley

    The Thinking of What I am Going to Say Next Interrupter. This interrupter is so busy thinking of what they are going to say next that they just are not listening. They are more anxious to be heard than to hear, and they are afraid they are going to forget what they are thinking (as they are not listening) and they come in mid-sentence. All the time. They are really good at it.

    The Finish Your Sentence Interrupter. This can either be an innocent eagerness to agree and participate or it can be a manipulative speech pattern that allows the speaker to hijack the conversation. Neither is acceptable. “I am excited to start looking at the new KPI’s we set up last month and I can’t wait to ----“ “I know, I know, you can’t wait to look at the Revenue Growth compared to last quarter because you are thinking that…” If there is one thing worse than an interrupter it is one who is a mind reader as well.

    The Time Fighter. A time fighter is someone who rushes conversations. A coach knocks on the owner’s door and asks if she can have a few minutes. The owner walks toward the door and replies, “Sure, walk with me.” What kind of conversation can take place walking through the gym? The gym is noisy and full of distractions, and the gym offers no privacy, should the discussion be confidential. Rushing conversations is kryptonite to quality listening.

    The Distracted Leader. The distracted leader simply does not listen. She is doing anything but listening. At the weekly managers’ meeting the rec department manager has spent the last 3-4 minutes explaining the results of a recent survey. The leader is texting. The leader is looking at a paper on her desk. The leader is having a side bar conversation with the team director. The leader texts again… and while the rec department manager is in the middle of a sentence about starting classes on time, the leader randomly asks, “Did we pay for repairs on the air conditioner yet? Don’t pay those guys until I get a chance to talk to them.” Crickets.
The behaviors weaken leaders. Super listeners do not interrupt. Heroic leaders value communication and they respect their team. And they have impeccable communication manners.

3. Invisibility

Heroic leaders know how to disappear. They are content to wait backstage and let the working team enjoy the applause. They know how to distribute responsibilities and they regularly delegate.

We can’t confuse the absent leader with the leader who can disappear. The absent leader – is not on site, gone. The invisible leader is still there, still leading... just from the background.

Being invisible is one of the most difficult and evasive powers to master. There are 5 components to mastering the superpower of invisibility.
  1. The obvious starting point but it must be noted; the invisible leader has the right people on the team. The pre-requisites to a strong team are exceptional hiring and training systems. There is no getting around the importance of surrounding yourself with the right people.
  2. The right people must be working in their space of highest competence. Heroic leaders do not promote an excellent coach to a sustained level of incompetence. Heroic leaders do not waste the talent of a potential manager by keeping her in the same entry-level position for 8 years nor do they ask the newly hired 16-year-old summer camp coach to manage the chaotic weekend party program.
  3. While surrounding themselves with the right people, leaders with the power of invisibility are willing to play the bench. Future leaders are not developed by osmosis. Employees need opportunities to participate, to do the right thing, to make mistakes and to learn. There is value to the process of creating 5 new marketing campaigns, even if those campaigns do not turn out as perfect as you could have done them. Heroic leaders are doing something more visionary while the new marketing intern gets playtime.
  4. Invisible leaders are willing to devote resources to train and prepare their employees. Knowledge, experience and expertise take time and resources. Training, shadowing, classes, clinics, congress, mentoring, workshops… all cost money. Covering classes so that staff members can pursue training costs money. Covering travel and meals during training costs money. Heroic leaders understand the value of developing staff and know that the return on that investment will come back ten fold – one fold of which is being able to be invisible.
  5. Leaders with the power of invisibility have systems for delegating. They have established job descriptions. They make intentional decisions about who is going to handle each responsibility in the gym. They calendar tasks and have meetings to discuss progress. They are methodical and predictable in delegating tasks and employees know what is expected of them and they know they will be held accountable.
Leaders who have mastered the power of invisibility are generous, confident and secure and they take pride in helping their team achieve independent and collective success. They are motivated to fade into the background and effectively lead behind the scenes in support of their team.

4. Empathy

Empathy allows a leader to interpret and understand the feelings and emotions of others. Leaders who are empathetic care about other people and the circumstances of their lives. Catwoman, Captain Planet and Ravine have powers that allow them to relate to other beings in their environment.

Empathy in business can be a formidable super power. Empathy can silently tear down walls, openly build up teams and unlock the floodgates of communication. People do their best work when they are working to please someone who cares about them.

Empathy can be innate, learned or both. Some people seem to be born with a high level of compassion. They are the kindergartners who bring a hurt classmate to the school nurse and cry when the Bactine goes on the friend. Others have learned through experience and study to become empathetic. They are the ones who issued a pink slip upon the 6th absence in the spirit of policy and fairness only to learn that chemotherapy takes 12 rounds. Heroic leaders engage. They ask questions. They are present. Heroic leaders don’t decide to be empathetic. They don’t measure each individual situation to determine if empathy is warranted. They are empathetic. It becomes them. Every decision to promote progress, fairness and accountability is influenced by a desire to comprehend, understand and empathize with others. People do their best work when they are working to please someone who cares about them.

5. Resilience

Hulk, Blue Marvel and Infinity are able to withstand almost any condition or force. They can take the heat. If they are down, they get back up again and come back, stronger. We have heard the expression that “The buck stops here,” or, “It’s lonely at the top.” Heroic leaders have to accept responsibility for their mistakes as well as the mistakes of others. Superhero fact: There is no room for the weak or thinned skin at the top. Leaders make difficult choices. We fire people. We close facilities. We cut payroll. We say ‘No’ to expansions. We demote people. We handle labor board disputes. We handle tax issues. We handle lawsuits.

Leaders who have not developed a protective armor shy away from the tough decisions. They tend to be indecisive. They are perceived as weak. A heroic leader has a protective armor of experience, fortitude and goodness that helps her take the heat and get back up again. And again. A heroic leader gathers information, studies, contemplates, and then strikes with authority and fairness. A heroic leader looks for solutions in every crisis and finds lessons in every journey. Resilience has been an essential superpower in every generation in our industry. Nadia Comaneci’s resilience enabled her to score that 10 in Montreal. Kerry Strug's resilience enabled her to land that vault in 1996. Shannon Miller’s resilience took her to the greatest heights of the sport and was called upon again as she fought for her life - at the age of 33. Patti Komara’s resilience led her to become one of the first women to pioneer a private gymnastics club and a curriculum and marketing business. Steve Greeley’s resilience forged the acceptance and accolades of creativity and imagination in the gymnastics industry. Jeff Lulla’s resilience ensured a place for fun and fitness in a growingly competitive industry. Jeff Metzger’s resilience led the industry to see gymnastics as a business as well as a sport, opening the doors for education, careers, expansions and growth and catapulting the industry forward in the 1990’s. David Holcomb’s resilience has shown us that a gym club can lead great athletes to great things with great honor.

Which brings me back to the beginning. We have never needed heroic leadership more than we need it today. May we be visionary. May we listen. May we put our people forward and lead from quiet places. May lead with empathy. And oh, may we continue to be resilient.

It begins with me. It begins with us.