With Martin G. Moore

Episode #45

Leaders Are Learners: Lessons from everyday life

You have probably heard me say before that ‘leaders are learners’ (well, it’s hardly an original saying, is it)?

Today, we step away from the purely business and organisational context to share a few very personal examples of how some of my greatest leadership learnings have come from every day life – not from the world of business.

So why was my trip to Japan in 2012 so valuable in developing my perspective on different cultures, even though I had travelled through much of Asia previously?

And what skills and capabilities did I really acquire while neglecting my law degree to work in the bars of Sydney’s Kings Cross in the early ‘80s?

Opportunities are in front of us every day, if we just choose to open ourselves up to the lessons.


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Episode #45 Leaders Are Learners: Lessons from everyday life

Welcome to the No Bullsh!t Leadership podcast. In a world where knowledge has become a commodity, this podcast is designed to give you something more; access to the experience of a successful CEO who has already walked the path. So join your host Martin Moore, who will unlock and bring to life your own leadership experiences, and accelerate your journey to leadership excellence.

Hi there, and welcome to Episode 45 of the No Bullshit Leadership Podcast. This week’s episode; Leaders are Learners: Lessons from everyday life. You’ve probably heard me say before that leaders are learners. Well, I guess it’s hardly an original saying, is it? But what I want to do today is to step away from the business and organisational context to share a few examples of how some of my greatest learnings and my greatest capability development opportunities as a leader have not come from the workplace, but rather from everyday life.

Learning opportunities are everywhere, if we have the right frame of mind and the openness to accept the lessons that are right there in front of us. So let’s get into it.

I quite often say that the older I get, the less certain I am about practically everything. But interestingly, this has made me a lot more decisive, as I’ve learned to recognise the thousands of different shades of grey and how to distinguish between the important, the profound, and the mildly interesting. Part of the joy of getting older is taking the opportunity to become more worldly, more accepting of differences, and more certain that you don’t have all the answers the same way you thought you did when you were 30 years old.

An attitude of continuous learning can have enormous benefit, not just for our level of knowledge and wisdom, but also our ability to understand the world through the eyes of others. It helps us not to accept any views on face value, no matter how much we think we can trust the source. It helps us to see why other people might view the world differently and act accordingly. It helps us to become more tolerant and instead of judging the actions of others, to remain curious about what experiences, beliefs and values have led them to act in ways that we would not consider ourselves.

I want to start by sharing a little bit about that whole university drop out thingy. If you’ve looked at our website, www.yourceomentor.com, you’ll see that I’ve gone from university dropout to CEO of a multi-billion dollar business, sort of catchy, right? But there’s a lot of interesting stuff that sits behind that, that I’d really like to share with you.

Let’s go back a ways. In the 1970s, I attended one of Sydney’s top private boys schools, where the expectation was set that on graduating from high school, we would pursue one of the professions; medicine, law, veterinary science, architecture and so forth, from which we would graduate with distinction, take our rightful position amongst society’s most respected and successful people.

Well, what a bunch of twaddle. The most successful people I know are the ones who are truly happy, who are living out their true nature and purpose and are making an impact on the world. They come from all different socioeconomic backgrounds, all types of schools, and all cultural origins. They worked out early that money and power are not the path to happiness and, in fact, never have been. Anyway, back to my story.

Now, as it turns out, I did excel at high school and I was in the fortunate position of being able to choose to attend any university in Australia to study any undergraduate degree of my choice. Medicine, which was the most difficult degree to be accepted into, didn’t really grab me. For a start, I didn’t much like the sight of blood, and also I couldn’t imagine a life spent around sick people. Horses for courses, right?

I was accepted into a double degree at the University of Sydney, studying Arts and Law. When I started at university, I did not hesitate to set the bar as low as possible. I decided that 50 was a pass, and 51 was way too much work. I didn’t attend lectures or tutorials. I figured I could skate by, and for quite a while, I actually did. My problem was, I was really immature socially. I had come from an extremely structured environment, where, as a boarding school boy, I was fed to steady diet of academic study and rugby. And that was my life. When I got out, I learned about drinking, sure, more rugby, dating, socialising, and working to earn money.

So as a poor university student, I was working so that I could earn money in hospitality; bars, restaurants and nightclubs. I spent quite a while working in Sydney’s Kings Cross area, which is described as shady, dodgy, seedy, dangerous. It’s the place in Sydney where everyone goes. It’s a cross between the entertainment precinct and the red light district. But doing this, I learned so much about myself and so much about other people. The things that I was learning were all about resilience, judgement, human interaction, personal confidence, and so forth. I was developing my emotional intelligence without actually knowing it at the time.

But at three o’clock on a Sunday morning, when everything started to get a little bit ugly, you’ve got to know from a long way off, who’s going to be fun, who’s going to be trouble, who’s had enough, who’s just winding up. You’ve got to be able to see that from a long way off. Your judgement about being able to read people becomes very, very finely tuned. Over the years, what I started to develop there in the bars of Kings Cross has become my superpower. Being able to sit down and have insight into how people are thinking, reacting, and behaving is critical for a leader, and I started it in the strangest of all places.

I want to move on to talk about the value of travelling. I’m not talking about the road trip up to Noosa Heads for a weekend at the beach. I’m talking about going to a country where, you don’t speak the language, you don’t understand the culture, and you are the outsider, the odd person out, not just the comfortable median who blends in like you do at home.

One of my greatest learnings many years ago is when I was visiting Japan, just on a holiday trip with my wife, Kathy, and my youngest daughter, Olivia. I had a good friend who had been living and working in Japan for many, many years, who go by the name of James Murphy. Now, James, was living in Osaka and he was a General Manager in a Hilton Hotel. He knew the place really, really well. When we went there, of course, we stayed at the Hilton and James was showing us around.

Just so you know, James is not a Japanese-looking person. He’s a six foot three Aussie, who’s been living there for many years. But he understands the language and the culture as fluently as if he had been brought up there. So when he shows us around, we get to see what really goes on. One night, James took us to dinner at a sushi joint. When we turned up there, he said, “Please wait outside while I go and ask the owner if it’s okay for you to come in.”

Now, I’ve got to tell you, I was a bit miffed at this because I’m thinking to myself, “What? Isn’t our money good enough for you guys? We’ll go and eat somewhere else and spend it somewhere where they want it.” But James explained to us later after he’d taken us inside, that the cultural aspect behind this is that the Japanese would be absolutely embarrassed if they didn’t know how to serve us. Because we were a bunch of gijin who didn’t speak any Japanese, James had to assure them that he would look after us and he would do all the ordering on our behalf. But he asked permission because he didn’t want them to feel the embarrassment of not being able to serve us properly.

Now that insight into how they think about those things in Japan was very, very different from the automatic reaction that I had and the conclusion that I jumped to without understanding the culture properly. I’m sure many of you have a range of stories like this, where you’re in a foreign country where you don’t understand the culture and you don’t speak the language, and you’ve had to work out how to adapt to that. I think that as a perspective altering way of being, is incredibly important. When you come home, it makes you much more tolerant of people who are strangers in your strange land.

When I now run into people in the workplace whose English skills are poor, I think to myself, “How unbelievable is what they’re doing?” They don’t speak the language. English is their second or third or fourth language, yet here they are living in the country and getting by. I have an incredible respect for people who will do that. It completely changes the otherwise xenophobic thoughts that we may have about people who aren’t like us.

I want to move to looking for patterns in everyday life. Because there are patterns that if we pick up on them, even though they’re not necessarily immediately in front of us, we will learn a lot about what it takes to be successful and happy. There are lessons in sport, in the arts, in our family lives, and of course in societal patterns. It’s the common elements that are the most striking.

For my daughters, I’m completely at ease with their life choices. But as I say to them, “Whatever you decide to do with your life, make sure that you understand the common success principles.” I’m going to put this as a downloadable at the end of this podcast so you’ll be able to pick it up from Your CEO Mentor website, www.yourceomentor.com/episode45. But I’ve got eight principles here that I think are critical in living a happy and successful life and they didn’t come from business.

Here we go. Number one, what other people think of you is none of your business. Don’t be a slave to conventional wisdom and certainly don’t listen to those people who sit themselves up as judges and arbiters of what “one should do”. It’s ridiculous. If you get back to the very first podcast episode of No Bullsh!t Leadership, we talk about Respect Before Popularity. You’ve got to leave the need to be popular behind you. What other people think of you shouldn’t drive your decisions.

Number two, work out what you truly love and do more of it. The only caveat here, is that you can’t be damaging to anyone else. As long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else, you do as much as you can of what you truly love. Number three, don’t make choices based on anyone else’s expectations. As I say to my daughters, “Not mine, not your mother’s, not anyone’s. Make your own choices based on what you truly believe. And that will always put you in a good place.”

Number four, don’t compare yourself to anyone else. You have no idea what their struggles are. This is a particularly vexed issue in these days of social media. I’ve always said quite jokingly that the tagline for Facebook should be, “My life is better than your life.” People only ever put the good bits up there. You don’t see the struggles. So it’s a really, really unrealistic thing to compare yourself to. As Theodore Roosevelt put it, “Comparison is the thief of joy.”

Number five, don’t judge other people. You have no idea what their story is and you have no idea what their real struggles are. Don’t judge them, be tolerant of them and let them get on with what they’re doing. They have their lives to lead as well.

Number six, if you want to be really successful at anything, it takes dedication, time, commitment, resilience, and mental strength. If you don’t have that, don’t expect to succeed.

Number seven, being successful at anything, as a parent, spouse, business woman, sportsman, etc. will have barriers that keep most people away. Welcome them when they come. Recognise that they are part and parcel of the path to success and don’t bitch and moan about how hard things are. The reason more people aren’t as successful as they could be is because they simply don’t have the courage and the commitment to push through the barriers to success that lie before all of us.

Finally, number eight, everyone’s path is absolutely unique and there are no shortcuts. Success is never accidental. If you see anyone who’s successful in anything, they’ve put in the work, they’ve taken the risk, they’ve stayed up the late nights, they’ve done the things that get them there. It is never accidental or lucky. If you do actually happen to get to a place where other people look at you and think “That’s successful but you haven’t done it the right way”, just remember, as my good friend in Connecticut, Kim Y says, “Karma is reliable.”

I just want to finish off by giving you some lessons from HBS. HBS, for those of you who don’t know is the acronym for Harvard Business School. To circle back around from where I started, I eventually got a decent education in leadership and business. I took an MBA at the QUT Graduate School of Business, in which I excelled, graduating in the top 1% of MBA students in my graduating year. I then a few years later, did the Advanced Management Program at HBS.

Now, fortunately, I have lots of friends and family to keep me grounded. There’s one of my cousin in Boston, Denise Cabin says to me, “Marty, let’s face it. There’s no BS like HBS.” The Advanced Management Program is a two-month residential in Boston on campus at Harvard Business School and they work you pretty hard. You get up pretty early in the morning, do some exercise and you’re dealing with a 16 to 18-hour day, six days a week.

It actually took us three weeks before we worked out what the program was about. So sure, you do a bunch of case studies that have a whole heap of learning in them, and you interact with faculty that are the thought leaders of business on the planet. Bob Kaplan, Dave Yoffie, Clay Christensen, these are unbelievable people to mix with. But in the first three weeks, we all worked too hard at the expense of the learnings and relationships with our peers.

Now, have a think about this. There are 160 people from 40 countries to learn from. If you spend all your time with your head buried in a case study, doing reading or analysing cases, you are not getting the benefit of the diversity that sits all around you. In the last five weeks, we spent a hell of a lot more time drinking red wine in the wee hours, talking about our lives, our paths, and our careers. And some enduring relationships have come from that. But those times were worth more than all of the case study learnings put together.

When I came back, I came back with an incredible amount of confidence, that I could walk into any room, in any business or social situation and have confidence that I would know how to handle whatever came my way. When I went to HBS in 2007, I was a total lightweight, complete lightweight compared to the peers that were there. But when I came back, I was a completely different person. So even in the context of education and formal learning, the greatest learnings I took out were not what you might expect.

Alright. That brings us to the end of Episode 45. Thanks so much for joining us, and remember at Your CEO Mentor, our purpose is to improve the quality of leaders globally. If you’re enjoying this podcast, please share it with the leaders in your network so that we can start to improve the world of work. I look forward to next week’s episode, Building the Right Team for Change.

Until then I know you’ll take every opportunity you can to be a No Bullsh!t Leader.


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