Well into my career in the U.S. Navy, an opportunity arose that would ultimately change my life. A high-ranking Naval official called and urged me to consider becoming the next Superintendent (President) of the U.S. Naval Academy.
It certainly made sense to him. It was, after all, my alma mater, and I had led multiple large organizations within the Navy. My background in running numerous training organizations, expertise in strategic planning, and experience with building large facilities would be helpful as the Naval Academy looked to the future. I had also worked in the admissions department there a few years after graduating.
There was only one problem: This assignment didn’t make sense to me.
My own plan, which involved taking another international assignment and staying close to aviation and major logistics issues, seemed more reasonable — and also a lot more comfortable. That was something I’d done before and knew how to do well. Why risk failing in an entirely new role?
Before long, the phone rang again. It was another superior. He was less accommodating than the first. More conversations followed. A pattern emerged — the chance to lead the U.S. Naval Academy was not merely a privilege. It was also something that both officials, who had closely observed me for several years, clearly wanted me to do.
It was an offer I really couldn’t refuse, and the experience turned out to be transformative, launching what has now become a 20-year career in leading educational institutions. Looking back, it’s humbling that I was asked to guide my alma mater — and even more humbling that I was unable to see that role right away for the stroke of good fortune it truly was. At the time, I wasn’t thinking creatively enough about my own future or the contributions the Superintendent could make, in concert with very talented colleagues, to furthering the education of the superb women and men at the Naval Academy.
It all seems so obvious now. But sometimes in the moment, it’s hard to think clearly about the future. When it comes to leadership, however, that’s exactly what we need to do. Otherwise, we risk missing opportunities to grow our own skills and make a positive impact on others.
Recently, I was privileged to join colleagues from CCL in delivering a presentation at the Association for Talent Development’s Asia-Pacific Conference in Taiwan. We shared with the audience the 4 talent and innovation traits that we believe are most essential for driving growth and innovation, based largely on the work of a colleague — CCL innovation and design expert Joseph Press.
It also made me wonder: how many gifted leaders put a ceiling on their own potential inadvertently, the way I nearly did in the Navy, because they’re having trouble seeing around the corner? We can help take our own careers and our organizations to new levels of performance by challenging ourselves to be:
- Future-focused: This trait has much to do with being a big thinker and a trend spotter, as we look for business opportunities and competitive threats. It requires immersing ourselves in learning experiences that probably won’t feel comfortable (like my role at the Naval Academy) and then being opportunistic and nimble in applying the knowledge we gain. Perhaps most of all, future-focused leaders must maintain a deep reserve of positivity to help their teams and organizations ride out the inevitable ups and downs.
- People-centric: This means appreciating the implications of Dr. Carol Dweck’s groundbreaking research, which shows us that attitude is a better predictor of success than IQ. People-centric leaders understand that their people have enormous potential that’s waiting to be unleashed by leaders who inspire commitment, span boundaries, build networks, and value resilience. Such leaders aren’t intimidated by working with people who are smarter than them — they actually want their employees to be smarter than them. They know their job is to develop cognitively diverse teams and then marshal their ideas, energy, and talent.
- Tech-enabled: My grandchildren wouldn’t consider me a tech wizard by any means, despite the iPad and iPhone that I tote around the globe. As digital natives, they are far more technologically savvy than their parents or grandparents. Still, as leaders we need to appreciate the tremendous importance of analytics, social media, and data and technology strategies, even if they aren’t second nature to us. We need to educate ourselves on the technologies our organizations need to succeed, explore partnerships to obtain them, and experiment with digital tools in our own lives. Most of us aren’t going to be experts in this realm, but we need to champion technology, link it carefully to overarching strategy, and provide the resources to invest in it properly.
- Maker-ready: This speaks to another area that often makes leaders nervous: creativity. Studies have shown that there’s a definite bias against creativity in organizations because new ideas upset the routine, and most organizations — and people — want to maximize predictability and efficiency. As leaders, we need to be ambidextrous — focused on keeping our core products and services fresh and compelling while also exploring new horizons that will help reinvent and sustain us over the long term. Maker-ready leaders are design thinkers. But they also have business acumen and a keen understanding of operations — and how these various elements must be orchestrated to reach new levels of performance.
Now’s an excellent time to reflect on 2 questions that all leaders and aspiring leaders should ask themselves: In which of these 4 areas do I most need to improve? And which does my team and organization most need?