With Martin G. Moore

Episode #214

Lesson From Leaders Who Grow: Q&A with Marty & Em

In the last four years, we’ve had over 1,000 leaders take our Leadership Beyond the Theory program.

We’ve been fortunate to see a really broad cross-section of global leaders, and we’ve learned a lot about what makes them tick, as we’ve answered their questions in the interactive weekly webinars.

These are leaders who grow, who are actively pursuing ways to improve their leadership capability and performance. We’ve seen some common threads emerge that are virtually identical, regardless of culture, leadership level, industry, or organization size.

In this Q&A episode, Em and I share the secrets of the five key things that we’ve learnt about leaders who grow. Even leaders who are on the fast track face challenges and difficulties, and need to find practical ways to increase their performance, and enhance their career prospects.

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Episode #214 Lesson From Leaders Who Grow: Q&A with Marty & Em

We’ve had over 1,000 leaders take our Leadership Beyond the Theory program – or LBT as we call it – so Em and I have really got to see a broad cross-section of global leaders:

  • Leaders at all levels, from aspiring leaders who haven’t yet had their first leadership role to experienced CEOs.

  • Leaders in dozens of countries, from almost every continent.

  • Leaders from virtually every industry, from consulting and education, through manufacturing and aviation, to marketing and transportation.

  • Leaders from every type of organization: Fortune 500 companies, health and fitness startups, tech giants, government agencies, not for profits, academia – you name it.

We’ve learned a hell of a lot through our interactive sessions, addressing the questions and issues faced by all of these leaders, and there are some common threads that emerge frequently. So, with only two days left to register for the October 2022 cohort of LBT, we figured the best thing we could do is give you a window into the leadership challenges and successes of those leaders who truly want to improve. These leaders take a proactive approach to investing their time and energy into their future career path. And they aren’t held back by the things that stop a lot of people from reaching their full potential as leaders.

After spending over 30 years in corporate roles, it’s incredibly refreshing to work in an environment where every individual actually wants to change, and they’ve made the commitment to building their leadership capability. It massively improves their career trajectory, and it’s a blessing for every person they lead for the duration of their careers.

I also really love the comments we get from people telling us how LBT hasn’t just lifted their leadership performance, but it’s basically improved every area of their life. It’s pretty amazing when people work out how to actually apply the tools and strategies, not only to their professional lives, but also to their personal lives. It’s incredibly powerful.

After running the Leadership Beyond the Theory program for four years, Em and I stopped to reflect on the five key things that we’ve learned about leaders and leadership. I think that every leader can learn something from these points.


The leaders we see are committed to learning, growth and self development 

It’s probably fair to say that they’re not the typical leader. They seem to have something more. So, what is that? From my corporate career, particularly my executive years where I led lots of other leaders, there are a few things that stand out to me now:

Not every leader wants to do the things they need to do in order to grow. The vast majority of leaders say they do, but that’s not quite the full story. What they actually mean – and of course, the subtext of their dialogue – is, “I’m prepared to do things to improve as long as they’re not hard things.” 

It is interesting though, that the leaders have already been filtered before they end up in our Leadership Beyond the Theory cohorts. We’re probably dealing with a smaller subset of the leadership population –  the ones who are really committed to growth.

Something that’s actually been quite surprising is that we don’t often see leaders who are trying to keep up the facade without doing the work. Likely, that’s because it just takes a lot of energy and a bunch of rationalizations to live like that.

But I know so many leaders who’ve rationalized for so long that they begin to believe their own bullsh!t. Humans are awesome at rationalization! But you end up with this strange pantomime: leaders who believe the spin walk around like everything is fine and there are no bad leaders in the organization – when in fact, decent leaders are few and far between.

Don’t get caught out like the Emperor with no clothes! Avoid this common leadership trap with Episode 143: Believing Your Own Bullsh!t.


Many leaders think that they’re working in a unique context

This one is perhaps a little surprising, but as we know, there’s a hell of a lot more commonality between all these leaders than you might think on face value. I’m always amused by the fact that everyone thinks they’re dealing with unique circumstances. But the fundamentals are the same, regardless of context – especially when it comes to leadership.

About 20 years ago, I was working for a mining company in a C-level role, and I was visiting a mine site in Central Queensland.

As the general manager was escorting me through the tour of the operations, I made a comment about the similarity I saw between his operation and another mine that I’d visited a few weeks prior to that. He looked at me in complete shock and said, “We have almost nothing in common with that mine. They’re an underground mine, and we’re an open-cut mine.” Nothing in common at all, right?

Leadership is leadership. This is true whether you’re on a mine site in the middle of Australia, or in a hospital in the middle of New York City. Getting results from your people is the same, regardless of context.

I remember clearly that when we were developing the first version of LBT, Em and I had a conversation about this. Initially, we thought that the content might resonate more with leaders in asset-intensive and industrial businesses, because that’s where the majority of my executive experience was.

But over the years, we’ve found that the concepts of leadership are truly universal, and they apply to every leader in every type of business. I’d figured the tools and strategies were transferable, but even I’ve been surprised by the applicability across such a range of circumstances – and in particular, across such a variety of cultures.

Throughout the program, I talk through a lot of real world examples from my career – examples from energy, mining, transportation, technology, and so on. Em and I found that there are two types of people:

  • The person who realizes that the context is completely transferable, and adapts the key learnings to their own situation.

  • The person who says, “Well, I don’t work in mining, so this isn’t relevant to me,” and disregards the entire point.

Even those leaders who are keen to learn and grow have some mental blocks at times, which is why it’s so important that I personally answer every single question that’s asked during the program. If the context isn’t clear, that’s how we help people to work out how to translate the concept into their language.

One of the key elements of being successful in any type of organization is the ability to recognise patterns–to see the similarities in different situations, and to use your past experience to inform the way you deal with new scenarios that you may not have encountered before. And that’s the reason I was able to be successful in so many different industries.


Even leaders who want to improve sometimes don’t have the right mindset because their experience gets in the way

This is one that Em probably sees more than I do, because she does all the deep analysis of the data that we collect from our surveys. Clearly, we’re outcome focused, so we want to see real change – not just going through the motions. This is a super interesting observation, and it somewhat speaks to how much attitude and mindset are factors in virtually everything.

Of course, we’ve got some incredibly seasoned C-level leaders who do the program and learn a huge amount. Some change their entire leadership style and completely overhaul their organization’s processes because they’re open to learning new things and actually trying them.

They also don’t seem to have the same self-protection barriers that some leaders do. They tend to be introspective and a bit more self-aware. They always consider that there’s a possibility that they’re wrong, or that there might be a better way of doing things. And this ability to change your perspective when you encounter better facts is actually a sign of intelligence.

But we also see leaders who join, and (surprisingly) think they have nothing new to learn. They spend half the time trying to poke holes in the concepts, which is a little funny for us, but a waste of time for everyone. From our experience, those leaders are perhaps a little insecure, and they’re looking for confirmation of their current approach, rather than genuinely trying to learn, grow, and improve. Or it could be that on one hand they’re looking to grow but, on the other they have emotional and psychological barriers that hold them back – as we all do, really.

One of my favorite expressions applies perfectly here: they can’t get out of their own way. They’re smart and experienced, and their heart’s absolutely in the right place, but they have some sort of invisible barrier to growth, and it’s hard to work out what that is sometimes.

It certainly goes to show though, that improving as a leader is all about your openness and willingness to learn new things, to reflect, and to actually ask the right questions. Questions like:

  • “Okay, I understand this principle, but am I actually doing this?”

  • “Is there a better way to do things?”

  • “How can I improve what I’m doing without compromising my own unique leadership style?”

  • “Let’s imagine for a minute that this is true. How would it change in my perspective?”

Leaders who grow pull out these questions every single day.


It’s important to have the right intent, but what matters more is action

Think about how easy it is to develop bad habits, and how hard it is to break them. It’s important to have the self-discipline to develop the habits and behaviors that are going to enable you to develop and implement real change in your leadership capability and performance. This is one thing we know for sure about leadership: there are no silver bullets. Unless you commit to doing the work and to make the change, you’re not actually going to go anywhere at all.

Every leader joins the program with the intention to do the work. Otherwise, why else would they join? A good example of this observation is the leaders who say at the start, “I’m going to commit to attending a live webinar every week”… and then they don’t. They might attend one, and then they don’t do anymore for the rest of the program.

We can distinguish pretty early on the people who want to change enough to actually put in the work. Unfortunately, there are some in every cohort who don’t – they sort of have that intention in that they want to… but it’s just not quite enough to actually put in the hard yards. So, their leadership performance, their career prospects, and their confidence don’t improve to the extent that they should – or to the extent that they could – if they really did put in the work. They’ve got good intentions and the right mindset, but they just don’t have the self-discipline to actually follow through.

That’s an important principle, not just in leadership, but way beyond that – it’s a life principle. One of my favorite expressions is: “If you do the easy things in life, life becomes hard. But if you do the hard things in life, life becomes easy.” The leaders who manage to just push beyond the noble intent and take action really reap the benefits. Just like going to the gym, motivation doesn’t come before action. It’s only through taking action that you build motivation.

We see the vast majority of our LBT leaders taking action, and it’s much easier because of the practical techniques and strategies that we arm them with. But as they take those first awkward steps of change, something exciting happens: they realize that leading strongly isn’t as scary as it first seems! Then they get into a virtuous cycle of action, results, rewards, and impact. The confidence comes from acting, and then that fuels further action.

I think this is crucial when we talk about doing the program. You don’t walk out after eight weeks of LBT, and all of a sudden you’re an exceptional leader: however, you do walk out fully armed with everything you need to work on becoming a better leader over time. No silver bullets.

It’s the leaders who do the hard work of leadership that actually thrive – the ones who take the daily steps to do something different. They work on the things that create better performance in others, not just barricading themselves behind a wall of never-ending meetings and email tasks (which is pretty easy to do). We definitely see the difference between leaders who do the work on themselves, and the leaders who just tick the boxes of covering off the content.


There are always a tremendous number of questions about what we call ‘the constraints of the job’ 

Every job has limitations and constraints, and we sometimes find ourselves trapped by these, using them as an excuse not to change. This is something Em sees every week while preparing the questions for our live Q&A webinars. It’s interesting to see the leaders who genuinely want to change, and they want to find ways to get around their constraints, but it’s really difficult for them to see how they can.

There are a few dimensions to the general concept of constraints. Of course, you have real constraints in every role – which is why Michael Porter said that strategy is about deciding what not to do. There’s not an organization on the planet that has enough time, money, and people to do everything that it would ideally like to do. So, you have to make some choices… and everyone accepts the reality of that: “We’d like to do this project, but there’s not enough money to allocate to it,” or, “Oh, it’d be great to use Em on this project, but she’s tied up on a higher priority project over here.”

But leaders often get trapped by what I call artificial constraints. These are the constraints that we build up in our own heads. The ones where we assume that we couldn’t possibly take a certain course of action, but we are actually making assumptions and not testing them. A classic example – and of course, one that’s really close to my heart – is the artificial constraint about who’s on your team.

For the most part, the leader gets to choose the team. But in many situations, a leader will resign themselves to the team they land in without questioning their performance and capability. It’s a case of, “Well, I guess I have to work with what I’ve got. All these people are here for a reason, so I guess I just have to work out how to get the best out of them. Besides, our culture is inclusive and we need to make sure everyone is looked after.” 

What a load of bullsh!t, right? This is a recipe for mediocrity and under-performance. There’s nothing worse than a culture where people know they have a job for life, regardless of how they choose to behave and perform. And some leaders never test the constraint to see if they could actually do something different.

My motto is: it’s a lot easier to reign in the stallion than it is to flog a donkey. While many leaders spend their days flogging donkeys, their good people flounder without the support and direction they need from a leader.

There’s another common constraint: “I think this is a better way to do things, but I have a terrible boss who’s a micromanager. He’ll never go for it.” It can take a lot of energy to overcome the bad boss syndrome, and there are plenty out there, but that’s really just like any other constraint.

A lot of the questions that we get are about things that are unlikely to change and that the leader has very little control over. So for example, they do Module 1: Deliver Value, and then they come back and say, “My boss will never prioritize value, so I can’t either.” 

Or, “I work in a small business where the CEO’s son reports to me. He can’t meet the minimum acceptable standard, even though I’ve coached him. I can’t bring it up with the CEO because it’s his son, so I just have to be okay with his performance. There’s nothing I can do.” 

Or another common one: “I work in a government agency or for the public service and I can’t fire people, so I just have to go with the flow.” (That one kills me)

These are constraints of the job that, ultimately, let people off the hook for poor leadership. And from what I can tell, some of these constraints are real, and some are artificial. It’s an easy cop-out to say, “I would do this, but I can’t because…” 

With any constraint, I think it’s important to recognise what it is. Then you have a really simple decision to make: can I live with this constraint or can’t I? And this sets up a simple, binary choice:

  • If you can live with it, then accept it. Stop bitching and moaning, get on with it, and spend every day doing your absolute best within the constraints you’re working with.

  • If you can’t live with it, then you’ll have to vote with your feet. Find another role elsewhere. I know that sounds brutal, but that’s one of life’s realities.

The really good thing about this approach is that it forces you to admit you have a choice. When you realize, and admit to yourself that you do have a choice, then the feeling of being trapped actually goes away. You might not be a hundred percent happy, but life is a lot better when you realize how much choice you truly do have. We always have a choice, and it just depends whether the cost and risk of that choice is acceptable to us. So it really helps us to break through the artificial constraints that we create in our own heads.

Em and I have learned so much in the last four years about what makes our best leaders tick, and what holds them back. I hope this has given you some food for thought on how you might like to tackle your next leadership development challenge.

If you’d like to join the October 2022 cohort of Leadership Beyond the Theory, we kick off on Monday October 10th. Learn more and enrol here.


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