Part One of a Series on The Tempting Ten Wallow Words

Carl Sandburg, the American historian, poet, and novelist who won two Pulitzer Prizes, once said, “There is an eagle in me that wants to soar, and there is a hippopotamus in me that wants to wallow in the mud.”

With today’s urgent streams of “breaking news,” distressing headlines, and relentless crisis du jour, it’s so easy to wallow in the negative muck. Giving in and giving up comes way too naturally. Without realizing it, we can get bogged down wallowing in the swamp. We can lose perspective, unconsciously put on C.R.A.P. glasses, and give into fear.

There are many reasons we’re drawn to the dark forces pulling us down to wallow in the swamp. These may include being unclear and unfocused, concentrating too much on yesterday or tomorrow and not living for today, getting our lives out of balance, not looking after our health, feeling inadequate, and being too comfortable — for now. These could be reasons for sliding into the swamp or signs that we’re there.

This is the first of a series providing a wallow check during these turbulent times. The series is adapted from my book, Growing @ the Speed of Change: Your Inspir-Actional How-to Guide for Leading Yourself and Others Through Change. These articles aim to identify the negative forces exerting the strongest downward pull on us. As the modern research and ancient wisdom of cognition and mindfulness show us, when we think about our thinking, we can change our reality.

Warning: This series is also intended to exorcise excuses, infiltrate and stretch comfort zones, and push toward personal transformation so we can climb up the leadership stairs.


On Becoming Being a Leader

My lifetime of work in personal, team, and organizational leadership led me to define leadership as an action, not a position. It’s what we do and not the role or position we’re in. That defines whether we’re leading, following, or wallowing. It’s also a proven path to greater happiness and life satisfaction.

So, leadership is an inside job. Some bosses can bully, bluster, and B.S. their way to positions of power. And for some, it works — for a while. But authentic and lasting leadership action starts with our being.


Why Don’t My Genes Fit?

Warren Bennis was a pioneer in the field of leadership studies. Bennis was a Distinguished Professor of Business Administration and Founding Chairman of The Leadership Institute at the University of Southern California. I followed and cited his leading work on leadership for decades.

Here’s one of his widely quoted conclusions on developing leaders; “The most dangerous leadership myth is that leaders are born — that there is a genetic factor to leadership. This myth asserts that people simply either have certain charismatic qualities or not. That’s nonsense; in fact, the opposite is true. Leaders are made rather than born.”


Birth of a Leader?

Since I began studying, applying, and teaching leadership skills early in my career, I’ve believed that high performers are made, not born. Otherwise, I’d have given up long ago.

When I was a sales trainer with Culligan Water Conditioning back in my early twenties, I wrote fictitious (and facetious) birth and death announcements (Leaders are Made, not Born), poking fun at the popular misconception that we’re either born talented or not.


Leadership Development: Nurture More Than Nature

There’s a large body of research showing that leadership is more about nurture than nature. One of many such studies, “The Making of an Expert,” published in Harvard Business Review, reported two key findings: “…based on rigorous research (from over 100 leading scientists) that looked at exceptional performance using scientific methods that are verifiable and reproducible…in a variety of domains: surgery, acting, chess, writing, computer programming, ballet, music, aviation, firefighting, and many others”:

  • “Consistently and overwhelmingly, the evidence showed that experts are always made, not born.” “…if you want to achieve top performance as a manager and a leader, you’ve got to forget the folklore about genius that makes many people think they cannot take a scientific approach to developing expertise.”
  • “…the journey to truly superior performance is neither for the faint of heart nor for the impatient. The development of genuine expertise requires struggle, sacrifice, and honest, often painful self-assessment.”

It can be a dangerous excuse to believe that leaders are born, not made. That takes us off the hook and provides an easy out from the difficult work of reframing our outlook and building our leadership skills.

Fortune magazine published an article entitled “Why Talent is Overrated” that addresses this critical self- and leadership-development question. The subtitle to the piece states, “The conventional wisdom about ‘natural’ talent is a myth. The real path to great performance is a matter of choice.”


Excuse Me. Are You Groaning or Growing?

Explanations — more often excuses — like “that’s just the way I am” or “strong leaders are naturals” frequently come from people who would rather wallow in the swamp, than take responsibility for their choices creating their life and leadership reality. That’s why I deliberately put it at the top of the Wallow Words Tempting Ten list.

Positive psychology pioneer, Martin Seligman’s decades of research on the roots of happiness and well-being reports, “all of these studies — and they now number in the hundreds — converge on a single point: roughly 50 percent of almost every personality trait turns out to be attributable to genetic inheritance. But high heritability does not determine how unchangeable a trait is. Some highly heritable traits… don’t change much at all, while other highly heritable traits… are very changeable.”

This aligns with Daniel Goleman and colleagues’ extensive research on emotional intelligence, “There is a genetic component…but nurture plays a major role as well…. everyone can learn to improve, no matter where he or she starts out…. great leaders, the research shows, are made as they gradually acquire…the competencies that make them so effective… building emotional intelligence happens only with sincere desire and concerted effort.”