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5 Great Leaders to Learn From

Much has been written about famous leaders in both business and the military, including inspiring quotes, legendary recollections, and dragon-slaying tales. Other articles celebrate early success (i.e., thirty leaders under thirty years old) missing the wisdom that comes from hardship, struggle, failure, as well as success. 

While there is much to be learned from a famous leader like Melinda Gates, there is inspiration in knowing about the leaders that walk among us.

Acknowledging their impact is critical to anchoring the power of strong leaders who may never write a book, or testify to Congress, or be interviewed by Oprah. Nonetheless, these elite leaders make a tremendous contribution to their teams, their companies, their communities, and their families.

Therefore, this is a tribute to five people that I have worked with, admire, and have learned from. They continue to lead, learn, guide, and inspire.

Resilience is a Habit: Lindy Bannister

“You are not born with a fixed amount of resilience. Like a muscle, you can build it up, draw on it when you need it. In that process you will figure out who you really are – and you just might become the very best version of yourself.” – Sheryl Sandberg, COO, Facebook

As I worked my way through business school while working at Albertsons, I met Lindy, who would become the first significant mentor of what has become a long and diverse career. In those days, Albertsons, Inc. was a powerhouse in the industry, led by a hand-picked successor by Joe Albertson himself.

We had lofty goals that we frequently achieved both individually and as a company. At the time, we averaged six-times the average profit of our competitors. In our location, we were our own family – operating for our individual, collective, and community success.

At the helm was Lindy. We could speak about operational excellence, team work, attitude, as well as what it was like in the 90’s for a woman to lead in a traditional male world. What is more informative however is Lindy’s habit of resilience.

At the time I had no idea what Stoic Philosophy was, but now understand that she led us with a mindset of controlling what we could control. We had no influence on weather that kept shoppers away or competitors that opened nearby. We could not change ineffective advertising or a tone-deaf district leader.

What we could do was make sure our store was stocked, staffed, and spotless. We could also make sure the family was well-treated. That core focus: be ready, be happy, be kind, and be hardworking no matter the external pressure, resulted in tremendous, repeatable success. It’s a lesson I’ve taken to different teams, geographies, and industries to great effect.

Pragmatism is Leadership: Ted Gaskamp

“We want to turn our inventory faster than our people.” – Jim Senegal, co-founder and former CEO Costco Wholesale

Ted and I first crossed paths working at USAA; I did not report to him, but often bypassed my own leader to seek Ted’s counsel. Strangely enough I did not realize that I was doing that until the third time Ted asked, ‘what does Mike have to say about this’? To me it was simply the most natural thing in the world to “ask Ted” as had become my mantra – because there was no reason to ask someone else who talked a lot, but said little.

When I relayed that to Ted, he chuckled – and a bond in pragmatism was born. Ted’s pragmatism drove him to lead with intention. When dropping by his desk, he stopped what he was doing to listen with full attention – to do otherwise would require the speaker to repeat themselves.

Though he often had ‘an answer’, he guided us to find it for ourselves, because he knew that if it was our idea, we’d take action. When one of us had a personal issue (i.e., death in the family, divorce, disappointment), Ted knew there was little he could do to fix that issue so he’d move his chair to work near us; he’d say, I don’t have an answer but I can sit here and show my support.

Ted taught me that leadership doesn’t have to be complicated; the pragmatic approach is tough in the sense that it requires attention, patience, prudence, and often listening. Yet it yields loyalty, trust, connection, and invariably, results.

Challenge is Growth: Terri Kallsen

“Listening to others with whom we disagree, tests our own ideas and beliefs. It forces us to recognize, with humility, that we don’t have a monopoly on the truth.” – Janet Yellen, Secretary of the Treasury of the United States

Several years into my career with USAA, Terri took the helm of our new Wealth Management division with a clear sense of direction.

Later I would hear her share a portion of her philosophy of that direction saying, “I hire, promote, and develop potential.” Her first challenge to me was when, in the most matter-of-fact voice, warmly smiled and declared, “Ken! I’m glad I ran into you. You’ll be one of our new media spokespeople. Expect an invitation for training that starts next week.”

Naturally I replied, Terri I’ve never done this before. She quickly smiled and said, “and now you will.” That challenge, the training alongside her, and the media interviews that became routine was exhilarating, nerve racking, and pushed me further, faster than I’d ever grown.

In addition to the obvious skill development, it also grew my confidence – the kind required to speak up with leaders, like Terri, that would come to rely on hearing my perspective. Terri taught me to have confidence in others, encourage them to thrive on skinny branches, and support them without condition. That environment is one where people take risks, grow, learn, and become strong leaders in their own right.

Perfection is Poison: Neesha Hathi

“You can’t have it all, all at once.” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, United States Supreme Court

Arriving at Schwab to be part of the team that would come to develop, staff, launch, and grow a technologically advanced offer was incredibly exciting.

As Chief Digital Officer, Neesha led the innovative effort – no doubt an experience often akin to herding cats. My role was specific to building the teams of people that would deliver the service. Her digital team was rapidly building the vehicle my team would drive. Very early on she encouraged us to quickly get a version in front of real clients.

She gently yet firmly pushed hard against waiting for the perfect version before we went public. Her reason was simple. When teams delay a launch in the pursuit of perfection, they become highly invested in the output – making it difficult to implement feedback from clients. Rather she led us to iterate, learn from feedback, and constantly improve based on facts. She believed that a perfect vehicle no one wants is poison compared with the one they can’t wait to buy.

Neesha taught me that by establishing a safe space to create, evaluate, iterate, and recreate leads to better ideas becoming better solutions that real clients relate with.

Be Visible: Colleen McKenna

“Just because you are CEO, don’t think you have landed. You must continually increase your learning, the way you think, and the way you approach the organization. I’ve never forgotten that.” – Indra Nooyi, former Chair and CEO of PepsiCo

After launching my own coaching business I was seeking additional structure to grow my practice.

To that end I briefly affiliated with Vistage in the pursuit of advancing a peer-advisory group. Part of that journey introduced me to Colleen and her company, Intero Advisory as one of the resources to help us develop our local network.

From the outset we knew our core values were aligned. Her approach to building presence on LinkedIn was to be real, visible, and consistent. As with many platforms, there is sometimes a feast or famine approach to sharing information.

On Facebook that equate to either pictures of food at one of the spectrum or an incendiary political diatribe on the other. In the LinkedIn ecosphere a similar spectrum would be someone with a partial profile that rarely engages up to the other extreme of overly informal posts more appropriate for Facebook.

Colleen calls these extremes being invisible or being social. After she released her book, It’s Business, Not Social,  I had the opportunity to meet her entire team, profile them, and facilitate an effectiveness session. Everyone showed up, spoke up, and engaged in a real, professional conversation.

It was an amazing metaphor for what she espouses in having an engaging, professional, and REAL digital presence via LinkedIn. Colleen leads her company just as she coaches others on LinkedIn: that we can share who we are in a genuine, professional way to build lasting relationships whether in real time or in a digital space.

Conclusion

It can be easy to turn to well-known and well-publicized role-models. I encourage you to take a look at your own experience for the people that have made a positive impact in your own leadership development. Then let them know.

Ken Kilday is the founder and CEO of Leader’s Cut: The Ken Kilday Coaching Experience. As a former corporate executive and current entrepreneur, he uses his hard-won lessons to help other business owners and business leaders as their executive business coach through individual coaching, team-effectiveness coaching, and LinkedIn Presence to become better leaders, making better decisions, and delivering stronger results through more effective strategy and relationships. Schedule a Meet & Greet with Ken (no strings attached) to connect.