Mark Miller: A second interview by Bob Morris

Miller, MarkMark Miller began writing about a decade ago when he teamed up with Ken Blanchard to write The Secret: What Great Leaders Know and Do. His latest book, The Heart of Leadership: Becoming a Leader People Want to Follow, was released in October 2013. Mark also writes a highly rated blog: In addition to writing, he really enjoys speaking to leaders. Over the years, he’s traveled extensively around the world teaching for numerous international organizations. His theme is always the same: encouraging and equipping leaders. He started his Chick-fil-A career in the late 70s working as an hourly team member and then joined the corporate staff working in the mailroom in 1978. Today, he serves as Vice President for Organizational Effectiveness. During his career, Chick-fil-A annual sales have grown to over $5 billion.

Mark’s been married to his high school sweetheart, Donna, for more than 30 years and has two sons, a daughter-in-law, and a grand-dog named Jackson. As a photographer, he enjoys shooting in some of the world’s hardest-to-reach places, including Mount Kilimanjaro, Everest Base Camp, Antarctica, and the jungles of Rwanda.

To read my first interview of him, please click here.

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Morris: Before discussing The Heart of Leadership, here are several of my favorite quotations to which I ask you to respond. First, from Lao-Tzu’s Tao Te Ching:

“Learn from the people
Plan with the people
Begin with what they have
Build on what they know
Of the best leaders
When the task is accomplished
The people will remark
We have done it ourselves.”

Miller: The best leaders win by helping other people win. It’s obvious from this passage, Lao-Tzu understood that principle.

Morris: Next, from Voltaire: “Cherish those who seek the truth but beware of those who find it.”

Miller: Howard Hendricks was one of my mentors. He told me the story of one of his professors who was constantly studying. When asked about his habit of perpetual learning, the professor responded: “Years ago, I decided I wanted my students to drink from a running stream not a stagnant pool.” That’s what I think people want, need, and expect of their leaders. I don’t ever want to follow a leader who thinks he or she has arrived. Leaders are learners.

Morris: And then, from Oscar Wilde: “Be yourself. Everyone else is taken.”

Miller: I believe our ultimate accountability as leaders, and human beings, is to steward what’s been entrusted to us. That presents enough challenge for me without trying to be someone else.

Morris: From Albert Einstein: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”

Miller: Therein lies one of our greatest leadership challenges – particularly if we’re successful. Success is a lousy teacher. We must constantly work to get above our current level of thinking.

Morris: Finally, from Peter Drucker: “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.”

Miller: The way I express that same sentiment to my team is this: “We get no credit for doing the wrong things well.” This is a bigger challenge than many leaders realize. If you have talented and conscientious people on your team, the problem will not be the caliber of the work; rather, is the right work being done?

Morris: In Tom Davenport’s latest book, Judgment Calls, he and co-author Brooke Manville offer “an antidote for the Great Man theory of decision making and organizational performance”: [begin italics] organizational judgment [end italics]. That is, “the collective capacity to make good calls and wise moves when the need for them exceeds the scope of any single leader’s direct control.” What do you think?

Miller: I’ve been a student, practitioner and advocate for teams for over 25 years. I even wrote a book casting a vision for what teams can accomplish! Teams, in almost every circumstance, make better decisions than individual leaders. These results are not easy to achieve, but they are obtainable. This success is contingent on the competency of the members and the maturity of the team itself. With that disclaimer, I’m a huge fan of what Davenport calls “organizational judgment.”

Morris: Here’s a brief excerpt from Paul Schoemaker’s latest book, Brilliant Mistakes: “The key question companies need to address is not ‘[begin italics] Should [end italics] we make mistakes?’ but rather ‘[begin italics] Which [end italics] mistakes should we make in order to test our deeply held assumptions?'” Your response?

Miller: Progress is always preceded by change. Leaders know this. The art of leadership is knowing what to change and when.

Morris: In your opinion, why do so many C-level executives seem to have such a difficult time delegating work to others?

Miller: Leaders who struggle with delegation, by definition, limit their own leadership – they may not even fully understand leadership. Leadership is getting work done through others. If the “leader” does all the work, he or she is not leading. One other reason some leaders struggle with the concept of delegation has nothing to do with their concept of leadership, rather, it is the competency of their team. Smart leaders don’t delegate to people who can’t perform. Instead, the best leaders work to surround themselves with extremely talented players.

Morris: The greatest leaders throughout history (with rare exception) were great storytellers. What do you make of that?

Miller: I believe stories resonate for several reasons, chief among them – all of us are living our own story. And, most people want to be part of a bigger story, a more noble story. When leaders present us with that opportunity, we often step forward.

Morris: Most change initiatives either fail or fall far short of original (perhaps unrealistic) expectations. More often than not, resistance is cultural in nature, the result of what James O’Toole so aptly characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.”

Here’s my question: How best to avoid or overcome such resistance?

Miller: This is a big issue. As you know, entire books have been written on this single question. My quick response is three-fold:

1. There must be a dissatisfaction created with the current state.
2. There must be a preferred alternative – vision.
3. There must be confidence in leadership that the journey is worth the cost and survivable. As Jim Collins says, “You only learn from the experiences you survive.”

Morris: Looking ahead (let’s say) 3-5 years, what do you think will be the greatest challenge that CEOs will face? Any Advice?

Miller: I think the challenge for the CEO is relatively unchanged, the context changes, but not the root issue. The question is: Can a CEO create a leadership culture or not? I define a leadership culture as a place where leaders are routinely and systematically raised up – and you have a surplus of leaders ready for yet unseen challenges and opportunities. CEOs and organizations that can do this will not only survive, they will thrive.

Morris: Now please shift your attention to The Heart of Leadership. When and why did you decide to write it?

Miller: The genesis for this book was The Secret, a book co-authored with Ken Blanchard a decade ago. In that book, we introduced the metaphor of an iceberg as our model for leadership. The 10% above the waterline represents the skills of leadership and the 90% below represents leadership character. The Secret dealt exclusively with the skills issue. Almost immediately after the book was released, people wanted to talk about the other 90%. After fielding those questions poorly for many years, I decided it would be helpful to have a point-of-view on leadership character.

Morris: Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it? Please explain.

Miller: The more I worked on the book the more I realized the significance of the topic. Leaders rarely fail for lack of skills, they are too easy to learn. What derail most leaders are issues of leadership character.

Morris: To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ significantly from what you originally envisioned?

Miller: The book is not as tactical in its final draft as it was in the beginning. Based on the feedback I received, the early drafts were too dense and too tedious. My original intent was to provide more of a field guide. Instead, the final manuscript does two things – hopefully, it makes the case for the importance of leadership character and provides enough concrete ideas to convince the reader it is obtainable. The true Field Guide will be completed in the future.

Morris: Why did you select the business fable genre as a framework within which to share your insights about “the heart of leadership”?

Miller: As we’ve already mentioned, my first writing experience was with Ken Blanchard. He is a master storyteller and a great mentor. He convinced me that stories connect with people. Also, I’m not sure I could write a real book, but I can tell a story.

Morris: For those who have not as yet read the book, you introduce a fictional character (Blake Brown, age 28) at a fictional company (Dynastar) who eventually completes a quest to understand why leaders are different. Without revealing too much about the details of the plot, please explain why you have six other characters centrally involved in the protagonist’s quest.

Miller: The idea of the other characters grew from my desire to tell an interesting story and to show how the leadership character traits outlined in the book could show up differently depending on your profession. In my last book, Great Leaders Grow, Blake’s father passed away. (He was Debbie’s mentor in The Secret.) The characters Blake meets in this story were members of a small group his father met with for the purpose of strengthening each other’s leadership. That model is from my own experience. I’m part of a group that’s been meeting regularly for 15 years – our purpose is to help each other become better leaders.

Morris: What is the single greatest barrier that Blake must overcome and what lessons can be learned from that?

Miller: He had a truncated view of leadership. Many leaders do. They falsely believe if they can do the things leaders do: cast vision, build teams, solve problems, etc. people will follow them. That’s the 10% above the waterline in our iceberg metaphor. Skills are critical and necessary. But the other 90% is what ultimately determines our success in leadership – it is a matter of the heart. Blake had to embrace a broader, more accurate view of leadership.

Morris: Blake struggles to balance his career with his personal life. In your opinion, why do so many “real” people have the same problem? Any advice?

Miller: I think leaders struggle with this issue for many reasons. Here are a few of them. Many leaders struggle, in part, because they’re chasing the wrong goal – balance is a myth. Our lives will be characterized by trade-offs and tension. We’re not going to resolve this tension, we’ve got to manage it. Also, some leaders struggle because we believe our future is in our hands – again, wrong. All we control is our readiness for opportunity. Others control our opportunity. Another stumbling block is a limited definition of success. As Ken and I wrote about a decade ago, the best leaders have a broader definition of success – it is about Results AND Relationships. One more reason leaders struggle, they falsely believe they must do it all themselves. If they really believe that, I question their understanding of leadership.

Morris: Opinions are divided, sometimes sharply divided, about the value of personal experience. Some insist that the most valuable lessons are learned from success. I am among those who believe that the most valuable lessons are learned from failures, setbacks, etc. What do you think?

Miller: I think both views are correct. The research I’ve seen indicates 70% of what leaders know about leadership was learned from experience. Also, I believe our deepest most profound learning is often the result of failure. My challenge is to follow the advice of Truett Cathy. He says, “We don’t have to make all the mistakes ourselves, we can learn from the mistakes of others.”

Morris: Many years ago, one of Albert Einstein’s Princeton colleagues playfully chided him for asking the same questions each year on his final examinations. Einstein replied, “Quite right. Each year, the answers are different.” In your opinion, are there enduring questions that business leaders throughout history have had to ask – and then answer? If so, what are they?

Miller: I love this question! My quick response is, yes – there are enduring leadership questions. Here are a few of them…

o Exactly what are we trying to accomplish?
o Why does it matter?
o What are the core beliefs that will drive our behavior?
o How will we organize to accomplish our goals?
o How do we make the strengths of our people productive and their weaknesses irrelevant? This one was inspired by Drucker.

Morris: Let’s say you have been invited to deliver an address at a high school commencement and this is what you asked to discuss: the defining personality and character traits of the person most likely to achieve great success in business in years to come. What would you suggest? Please explain.

Miller: You can probably guess my response to this one because you’ve read the new book. I would talk about the leadership traits outlined there. I would also challenge the students with the words of the ancient proverb: “Above all else, guard your heart. For everything you do flows from it.”

Morris: In my opinion, all great leaders have a “green thumb” for “growing” others to become leaders. Your own opinion?

Miller: One of the strategic ways servant leaders serve is by investing in others. These leaders know there is no true success without a successor. They also realize their own finite capacity. One way to increase your influence and capacity is to develop others who can lead at a high level. This is a multiplication strategy – leaders love multiplication!

Morris: Let’s say that a CEO has read and then (hopefully) re-read The Heart of Leadership and is now determined to establish or strengthen a workplace culture within which personal growth and professional development are most likely to thrive. Where to begin?

Miller: If you want to create a leadership culture, the following process may help…

Define it: What do you mean in your organization when you say “Leadership?” I’m sure everyone has a definition and I’m willing to bet, unless you’ve previously forged a consensus, everyone has a different definition.

Teach it: How well can your existing leaders lead? How do you expect new leaders to learn to lead? Take the necessary steps and make the investment to ensure current and emerging leaders can execute on your definition of leadership.

Practice it: Provide ample opportunities for emerging leaders to lead. Our tendency is to give the next assignment to a proven leader. This approach deprives emerging leaders from a real learning experience.

Measure it: What’s on your leadership culture scorecard? It’s probably not a single indicator. Instead, a few process and a few outcome metrics will help you gauge your progress. Without measurement, we can quickly drift to world full of random acts of training.

Model it: Are your current leaders walking the talk? At the end of the day, more of leadership is caught than taught. People do what people see. If you want an organization full of servant leaders, it needs to start at the top.

Morris: For more than 25 years, it has been my great pleasure as well as privilege to work closely with the owner/CEOs of hundreds of small companies, those with $20-million or less in annual sales. In your opinion, of all the material you provide in The Heart of Leadership, which do you think will be of greatest value to leaders in small companies? Please explain.

Miller: If the owners of small companies can create a culture in which leaders have cultivated the right HEART, many of those small companies can become big companies.

Morris: Which question had you hoped to be asked during this interview – but weren’t – and what is your response to it?

Miller: When I tell people this book is about leadership character, many leap to the conclusion I’m talking about traits such as integrity, loyalty, honesty, etc. That is NOT what this book is about. These are admirable traits – in fact, we want all of our employees to embody these traits and others like them. However, this book is about what makes leaders [begin italics] different [end italics]. Leadership character traits are above and beyond the traits you’d expect to see in any decent human being. They are the difference makers that others are not only willing but indeed [begin italics] eager [end italics] to follow. That’s what this book is about.

Thanks for your willingness to promote this book. I really do think it matters.

Guard your heart!

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To read my first interview of him, please click here.

Mark cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:

His Amazon page

Huffington Post interview link

Tony Morgan interview link

LinkedIn link

Twitter link

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