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DR. CUMMINGS: The leadership mind-set

Are you a leader? A parent, a teacher or a manager? Maybe you’re a lawyer or a doctor or the head librarian. How about a pastor or rabbi, the sheriff or police chief? Regardless of your position, the question remains: Are you a leader? If you have power over other people (even one or two) and you don’t have the “leadership mind-set,” you’re just a boss, not a leader.

A boss has the same power, the same responsibilities and the same authority, but he has a “boss mind-set.” I had a boss in San Francisco who ruled with an iron fist. I had a boss in New York who couldn’t delegate. I had a boss in Rome, Italy, who didn’t even know my name. All three men had power over me with the same authority and responsibility, but not one of them was a leader.

A lawyer who belongs to a large firm in Atlanta wrote to me last week. She said most lawyers who head up law firms are really fantastic in the courtroom but horrible in the corporate boardroom, and the reason is their mind-set.

“They’re trained,” she said, “to be defensive and adversarial, and they can’t turn it off when they’re dealing with their own staff.” In other words, these people were trained in law but not in leadership. The leadership mind-set was never addressed and, consequently, never adopted.

The term “mind-set” means a mental attitude or inclination. Your mind-set determines your behavior, and your behavior produces specific results. If you’re getting effective results from those you’re leading, it means you’ve got a leadership mind-set. If, on the other hand, your people complain (not in your presence, of course) about your lack of listening, your inability to communicate, your unfairness and your resistance to feedback, you’ve got a boss mind-set. You can try to change your behavior, but changing your behavior without changing your mind-set is not sustainable.

So how can you develop a leadership mind-set? Start with two simple statements:

“I will continue to grow and to listen.” Leaders know they have not arrived. They haven’t yet learned everything, and they’re not always right. Leaders look to change and transform themselves and to continually improve the organization they’re leading. A leader fails when he says: “I don’t have to grow anymore.”

My mentor, Dr. W. Edwards Deming, started a leadership movement back in 1980 that he called “Continuous Improvement,” and I think this identifies the first mind-set statement perfectly. When a boss stops trying to grow, he or she starts worrying about being judged. Pretty soon, everybody in the organization fears being judged, at which point innovation and risk-taking vanish. (Remember Enron?)

“I will let my team take the credit.” Leaders are a lot like good mothers who promote their children instead of themselves. Or they’re like Lao Tzu, the Chinese philosopher who inspired Confucius and who is quoted as saying: “A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: We did it ourselves.”

There’s a whole lot more we need to learn about leadership, but believe me, these two statements form the foundation of the leadership mind-set. Without it, we’re just bosses.

Dr. Bill Cummings is the CEO of Cummings Consolidated Corp. and Cummings Management Consultants. His website is www.billcummings.org.