Park Perspectives: The (un)natural leader
The guy next to me in the pink swimming cap told me that one year before, he couldn’t run a mile, and that since then he’d lost 75 pounds and that this was his fourth triathlon. He asked how many I’d done, and, I told him, adjusting pink rubber around my own ears and eager to commiserate with someone who’d whipped himself into shape: “This is my second one! I did my first one last week and had so much fun, I signed up for the next one I could find.”
“Oh,” he replied dismissively, “You’re just one of those natural athletes,” and walked away.
The first time someone told me I was a natural leader, I was in my late twenties and had occupied the title of “manager” for two different companies over the previous four years. As was the case when called a “natural athlete,” my instinct was to be offended. After all, I’d worked hard to give the impression of ease. My self-image was one of the boy at the end of the line in gym class, finishing the mile in the middle of the pack, not understanding how the fast kids did it. One of a sheepish follower who had difficulty persuading others. To be perceived as “natural” belied the effort it had taken to get to that point.
A sense of inadequacy can be a powerful motivator. If I’d seen myself as having been gifted with preternatural leadership or endurance, I wouldn’t have worked to develop those skills. It was because I had felt my natural skills to be insufficient that I worked harder, studied successful people, and tried to imitate their behavior. However, accomplishing something that requires effort is never satisfying if the effort began from the assumption that the final task should be easy. The faulty mentality is encapsulated by the thought: Yes, I’d achieved the difficult thing, but it hadn’t come naturally to me, so it shouldn’t ‘count.’
In other words, when I work to bridge the gap between my current state and an idealized future state, and then discount the outcome because of the effort it required, I am committing the same fundamental attribution error as the formerly obese triathlete. It is the very drive toward improvement that should be the goal, not the outcome itself. Instead of looking up to those who seem to have it easy and seeing the attainment of their state as the goal, we are better served to treat the effort, the continuous improvement mindset, as the state to admire.
Unique experiences, unique paths for achieving growth
In many ways, this is the gift of business school, as I have experienced over my first year at Johnson. This is an environment that fosters leadership, teaming, and camaraderie all in the name of personal growth. This insight is fostered in three key ways: the tight-knit community, the culture of feedback, and the opportunity to watch others grow in real time.
In just a few months, I had met almost everyone in my class, getting to know dozens of folks with skills, biographies, and backgrounds that astound me. It seems each person has something remarkable in their story, and my first instinct is to be intimidated and to begin my old habit of working hard to catch up.
But what I experienced surprised me. Just as I was looking up to these impressive people, so too were they looking up to me. My background, which seemed humdrum to me (I lived it, after all), triggered reactions of awe. “You were an actor? I could never do that!” “What was it like to be a bartender?” “Greg, you managed restaurants. Did you come across situations like this?” To my surprise, I had aspects of my background and personality which gave me the opportunity to lead, to share, and to lend my experience to benefit others.
As the semester evolved, the unique atmosphere at Johnson helped me with this revelation in another way. Business school is hard. It requires prioritization, scheduling, and sacrifice. But it is not, and cannot be, done in isolation. The propensity of group projects, core teams, cohorts, career work groups and clubs mean we go through the difficult journey together, and see that it doesn’t come easy for any of us. It is as if the triathlete in the pink hat and I were training for the triathlon together, experiencing the cold water swims and brutal brick workouts together, rather than just seeing the end product on race day and assuming the other one just woke up ready. We go through the hard part amongst each other, we see how much effort everyone is putting in, and respect each other more for our successes. There are no “natural MBA candidates.”
Finally, Johnson gives us a more subtle gift. In only a few months, we watch each other grow. We met each other through the application process or during preterm, and can see in each other a newfound confidence, a vocabulary, and a passion for a subject matter that seemed distant mere months ago. There is something special about seeing a classmate who struggles with a concept in October master it to the point that she can teach that very concept to a peer in January.
Personal mastery: The work of a lifetime
There’s a potentially apocryphal story about a fan of Picasso’s approaching him in a Paris café and requesting a quick sketch on the back of the napkin. Picasso obliges the request, only to charge an outrageous sum for the doodle. “So much! How long did that take, 30 seconds?” the fan asks. “That took over 40 years,” Picasso replies coolly, folding the napkin into his breast pocket.
At Johnson, we get the chance to ‘go to art school with Picasso.’ We are relieved of the illusion that those who excel do so because they are lucky or gifted; so often all we see is opening night, rather than the weeks of rehearsal. It is a gift, then, to experience the sausage getting made firsthand, to respect the process, and to revel ourselves in the very act of improvement, letting successes and milestones serve as nothing more than road marks indicating we are on the right course.