Leadership and the War of Art

Recently, an executive asked me to help develop a profile for recruiting new sales managers.  The company currently uses a highly refined and successful selection process which hires results-oriented sales managers who aren’t afraid to give pointed feedback and hold people accountable.  This approach has catapulted the company to great success and led to numerous industry leading benchmarks.  Over the past few years however, results have plateaued and traditional methods of leading a salesforce have reached a point of diminishing returns.

To solve the problem, the company wants to move from a traditional top-down “carrot and stick” culture to one that is driven by high levels of employee engagement and intrinsic motivation.  This requires a different type of leader who can connect with people, inspire them to embrace the challenge to grow, and engage them in the process of making daily improvements.  It requires a leader who understands that true accountability is less about waving a big stick and more about creating an environment where people own their results and find joy in continuously pushing themselves to get better.

So how do you find a leader like this?  In my experience, you can’t find them around every corner and they don’t all share similar backgrounds, education and experience.  They do however, possess similar characteristics that enable them to connect with others and create high performance teams.  Novelist Steven Pressfield outlined some key characteristics of successful creative professionals in his book, The War of Art: Breakthrough the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles that I believe are consistent with some of the characteristics we should be looking for in a leader.

First, the type of leader we are looking for is not afraid to act in the face of fear and endure adversity.  Second, he or she accepts no excuses and “plays it as it lays.”  Next, he or she is dedicated to mastering technique but does not show off as their skills improve.  Fourth, we need a leader who recognizes his or her own limitations and does not hesitate to ask for help.  Finally, regardless of the outcome of any singular event, he or she does not take failure (or success) personally.  They understand that “everything can look like a success or a failure in the middle” (Rosabeth Moss Kanter) and thus is never afraid to take on new challenges and risk being wrong in the pursuit of discovering what is right.


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