In the foreword to the book, Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card writes about finding the concept for the book in a three-volume set on the United States Civil War, titled, The Army of the Potomac by Bruce Catton.
The insight Card gained from reading these books was that President Lincoln had four generals, three of whom failed him because they lacked the will to be aggressive and win the war. He finally found the leader he needed in Ulysses S. Grant, whom, as Card describes, was willing to use the Army as an extension of his will.
I read Ender’s Game because it was the first book listed on the Marine Corps reading list for new Marines. I wasn’t sure why a science fiction book would have made that list, but when you understand how Card discovered the big picture idea, it makes sense. The book is excellent, and it is worth reading.
Here is my summation of the original idea in the book, as well as the foreword. General Grant had responsibility for the same Army, colonels, captains, soldiers, horses, terrain, as well as the very same enemy. Lincoln charged Grant with winning the very same war as his predecessors, under the very same conditions. Yet, his predecessors failed, and Grant won.
The Leadership Variable
How is it that one leader succeeds with the same resources with which another leader failed miserably? Let’s describe this leadership quality as “the leadership variable.”
You will hear leaders suggest ideas like “there are no good salespeople available,” even though there are plenty of good salespeople available if you have the right employee value proposition to attract and retain the candidates you need. These leaders also complain that “salespeople are lazy” and “you can’t get them to work.” In smaller, entrepreneurial companies, leaders gripe that they “have to sell everything themselves,” because their salespeople aren’t good enough.
These generalizations indicate a lack of effective leadership, a challenge with communication skills, and a tough time motivating and holding people accountable.
As unpopular as the idea of leadership as a variable is to those who hold the beliefs that underlie the complaints above, and as unhappy and unpleasant the truth, better leaders produce better results. Leadership is a variable.
Walking Across the Street
Some leaders will tell you that they don’t mind losing the salespeople who fail to produce results. They are not worried if a person who didn’t sell for them walks across the street to sell for their competitor. On occasion, they’re right not to worry about the person that failed for them suddenly catching fire and succeeding for their competition. Most of the time, however, their assumption that it is the individual is misguided.
The fact that a salesperson failed for you doesn’t mean they will fail for your competition. You might be General McClellan (failed), and your competitor could be Grant (succeeded).
Once a sales leader told me that he was going to fire his entire sales team and start over. He complained that they were all awful. They could not close deals, and they were terrible negotiators. I asked him what he was going to do with the third group. He was confused by my question, and he challenged me to speak directly.
I asked the follow-up question. “When you fire the next group of salespeople because you believe they’re awful, can’t close, and can’t negotiate, what are you going to change when you hire the third group of salespeople?” I don’t believe he enjoyed the question, but it made a point about leadership.
Everything Is Your Fault (Or Mine)
My primary philosophy of leadership can be boiled down to a few words, even if these few words cause some to chafe. “Everything is your fault.” As a leader, you are responsible for the outcomes you produce, especially the outcomes you produce through others. That is what a leader does; they produce results through the effort of those in their charge.
The people you lead are a reflection of your leadership. In the story about the third group, the company was not leading their sales force. They were not coaching them, nor were they engaged in their large deals. Instead, their sales leaders were mostly one of the six types of sales managers with leadership styles you want to avoid (or avoid becoming).
It isn’t easy to accept the idea that another person could produce better results with the same resources afforded you. The key to improving your leadership is your willingness to lead—and develop—the individuals that make up your team. Effective leaders improve their inputs to improve their outputs.
What About You?
Let’s not leave the lesson here to sales leadership alone. Personal leadership is also a variable. Another person provided with the same resources as you may produce better results. There are likely already people who sell the same solution, with the same pricing, and the same type of clients who produce better results.
Great leadership requires you to take a steely-eyed look in the mirror and accept that you can do better, even though it will require you to change.