Tanveer Naseer

Leadership Coach, Speaker, and Writer

How To Succeed At Leadership – Inspiration From An Unlikely Source

Lessons on leadership success

When it comes to leadership, there’s a common understanding that true leadership doesn’t require formal titles or roles. Rather, it involves our ability to inspire and rally those around us to commit their talents, creativity, and insights towards a shared purpose, and then doing whatever we can to help them to succeed in that effort.

It’s looking at leadership from that lens that’s compelled me to share these three important lessons – along with one of my own – from a most unlikely source of inspiration on what it takes to successfully lead others in today’s increasingly complex and fast-changing environment.

A few days ago, I watched an acceptance speech that actor Ashton Kutcher gave at a recent teen awards show. In accepting his award, Kutcher shared three lessons he’s learned in his work life that he wanted to share with the throngs of teens watching the show.

Although his message was meant to inspire the young viewers about their future work lives, some of the points he shared are equally important for leaders who want to ensure that they are providing the right environment to help those they lead to not only succeed, but thrive under their care.

1. Successful leaders put their employees ahead of themselves
At the start of his speech, Kutcher shared a list of the various mundane, manual-labour jobs he did at the start of his work career – things like carrying roof shingles onto rooftops, being a dishwasher at a restaurant, and sweeping cereal dust off a factory floor. After listing some of his past jobs, Kutcher tells his audience “I never had a job in my life that I was better than. I was always just lucky to have a job”.

As leaders in our organization, it’s easy to look at our roles as being more important than what our employees do. But successful leaders recognize that there’s nothing their employees do that they wouldn’t be willing to do themselves because their employees’ work is what ultimately leads to our collective success.

A good example of this is Goodyear’s Director of Commercial Manufacturing Billy R. Taylor who, as the plant manager of the Goodyear Fayetteville plant, actually cleaned the bathrooms at this facility in order to show his hourly wage employees that he cared about their working conditions because he wanted them to succeed.

On another occasion, he took over cleaning his office until such time that the plant labs were properly cleaned, once again with the intent of showing his employees that he wasn’t willing to put himself ahead of his team because he viewed his role as being more critical to their plant’s success.

As leaders, if we want to be able to tap into the discretionary effort of our employees, we need to show them that we’re being attentive to the day-to-day realities they face and that we’re willing to address them before we worry about such matters as clearing our inbox or scratching things off our personal To-Do lists.

2. Successful leaders are not just smart, but thoughtful and generous
For his second lesson, Kutcher was clearly thinking about the makeup of his audience when he talked about how to be sexy – which he described as “being really smart. And being thoughtful and being generous”.

In terms of leadership, this is a fundamental key to why people want to follow a leader – they want to know that the person they choose as their leader is smart. But today’s successful leaders don’t simply rely on their own intelligence and perspective to guide their decisions. Rather, these leaders are also thoughtful of others, seeking and valuing the insights and perspectives of those under their care to help shape and inform their decisions.

Such an approach also allows these leaders to be generous with their recognition, gratitude and appreciation for their team members because they know that their collective success is not dependent solely on their smarts, but on the collective wisdom, creativity and experiences of their employees.

While today’s leaders need to be smart, they also need to consistently communicate how they don’t have all the answers, preferring instead to use their wisdom to work with their employees to discover the best course to take.

3. Successful leaders help employees to build a life, instead of just living one
In his last lesson, Kutcher talked about how Steve Jobs once mentioned how many of us are told at a young age how the world works, and then proceed to go on to try and live within this world by getting a job, making a decent living and starting a family.

It’s at this point that Kutcher shares one of his most inspiring messages when he points out how “everything around us that we call life was made up of people that are no smarter than you”.

This last message is particularly important for today’s leaders to take note of in light of study after study showing decreasing levels of employee engagement in today’s workplaces despite their best efforts to try and turn the tide around.

Ironically, these same studies also reveal a common theme of what it takes to create the kind of engagement organizations need to ensure they’re adaptive and relevant in today’s increasingly competitive, fast-paced global market. Namely, that employees are no longer driven simply by the notion of making a decent living – they also need to feel a connection and sense of purpose in what they do.

Irrespective of which worker generation they belong to, today’s employees want to know that what they do and contribute matters beyond their sphere of influence; that it makes a difference to those around them. That’s why getting appreciation from their bosses ranks so high with employees – they want to know that what they do matters. In other words, they no longer want to live in the world that you create. Instead, they want to help build it.

4. Inspiration can come from anywhere if you open yourself up to it
This last lesson is one that I’m adding myself as a reflection of how this piece came about. After seeing and discussing how surprisingly inspirational I found Kutcher’s speech to be – not just for the teenagers in his audience, but for adults as well – I was encouraged by my wife to share these insights with my readers.

Of course, I have to admit that I had some early reservations about it – after all, who’d be interested in reading about leadership lessons gleaned from a speech given by a Hollywood actor for a teen awards show?

But therein lies the final lesson that’s important not just for leaders, but for everyone to take hold of – that if we truly want to be inspired by the everyday encounters we have with those around us, we need to open ourselves to that discovery; to not only to see things in a whole new light, but to commit ourselves to living up to a higher standard.

In a recent column, Steve Denning states that we’re in the midst of a “golden age of management”, one that “seeks to inspire both those who do work and those for whom work is done. It aspires to uplift the human spirit and unleash the creativity latent in every human being while also achieving more disciplined execution than traditional management.”

Key to the mass adoption of this golden age will be our willingness to look past formal roles and functions, to an outward-driven focus not only on how we can contribute the best of ourselves to a shared purpose, but how we can inspire and empower others to become the best version of themselves.

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  1. On August 20th, 2013 at 10:45 AM scott_elumn8 said:

    Great post Tanveer. I love this statement: "Successful leaders help employees to build a life, instead of just living one." The heart of leadership.

  2. On August 22nd, 2013 at 4:03 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Thanks Scott; I'm glad you enjoyed it. The idea that successful leaders help others build lives is certainly one that I'm most passionate about, which is why the ideas of fostering a sense of community, connectedness and a sense a purpose are woven into so many of my writings.

  3. On August 21st, 2013 at 1:39 AM Arslan said:

    Enjoyed the article thoroughly…..thnx Mr.Tanveer…..

  4. On August 22nd, 2013 at 4:04 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    My pleasure, Arslan.

  5. On August 21st, 2013 at 8:38 AM Jim Matorin said:

    Strong close Tanveer. Yes everyday encounters can be so meaningful, yet I find too many people are missing out on them thanks to living in their technology bubbles.

  6. On August 22nd, 2013 at 4:06 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Oh, tell me about it, Jim. I've been noticing that it's been getting worse this year as people become increasingly distracted – and myopic – in what they take into their view as well as what they process internally about what's going on around them.

    That's why I like sharing speech's like Ashton's to remind everyone that the inspiration for creativity and innovation we all so desparately seek is all around us. We just have to start committing ourselves – and especially our focus – to seeing and learning from them.

  7. On August 22nd, 2013 at 1:39 AM sparktheaction said:

    Excellent post Tanveer – and I agree with Scott's comment – "helping employees to build a life…" keeps us from losing sight of the 'big picture' of why we do, what we do.
    Very appreciative of your work –
    Best regards,

  8. On August 22nd, 2013 at 4:08 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Thanks Carl. As I mentioned in my reply to Scott above, the theme of communicating our shared purpose – indeed the very phrase you mentioned of why we do what we do – is so integral to many of the insights on leadership I share here on my blog because I do think too many of us have fallen out of touch with it.

    Of course, that doesn't mean we can reconnect with it if we're willing to try.

    Thanks again for the kind words.

  9. On August 22nd, 2013 at 10:18 PM DKO said:

    Tanveer ~ As I read your wonderful post I couldn't help but think to myself: how easy it is to say these things, how much more difficult to learn them and do them day to day. Indeed, it seems as if each of your straightforward points, because it is a life learning not just a technique, may well take a life-time of practice. That is not to say, "Oh, it's too big" or "I can't," but more to remember that these are lessons we learn again and again and again as our heart becomes truly educated to the inner and outer worlds of leadership. Thank you for a thoughtful and inspiring post. All the best to you.

  10. On August 23rd, 2013 at 2:05 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Dan, I think that is the whole point of these lessons – that they're not a fixed-point destination, but something we continually work at to not only strive to reach, but sustain despite the conditions we face.

    That's why in many of my talks and writings I point out how leadership is a never-ending learning process. This is also why I enjoyed Kutcher's speech as he was sharing his own life lessons of what he's learned and continues to learn going forward.

    Thanks Dan for sharing your thoughts; I'm glad you enjoyed it.

  11. On August 23rd, 2013 at 8:06 AM Brownyn said:

    In the same way Ashton inspired so do my children. They seem to grasp some of the complications of life and give of themselves selflessly that helps me be a better adult. I take the inspiration and try to live it. Thanks for this piece of work. I enjoyed it immensely

  12. On August 23rd, 2013 at 2:06 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    I know exactly what you mean, Brownyn. And I think part of the reason behind that is that in our drive as parents to help them be the best they can, to grow into a fully realized version of who they were meant to be, we end up having to turn the lens inward and reflect on what we need to change in ourselves to help them succeed in that journey.

    Thanks for adding this point to the discussion.

  13. On August 23rd, 2013 at 11:57 AM frenchnurse said:

    Tanveer, what a fantastic post. You've expanded on a speech that I also admired and taken it to another level. We have a corporate culture we need to change. Those of us who consider ourselves leaders have the chance influence those in the corporate world. Life isn't about work. Work is part of our life. Bravo!

    Sue Bock

  14. On August 26th, 2013 at 6:51 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Thanks Sue for the kind words; I'm glad you enjoyed it and that you too were equally inspired by Ashton's speech.

  15. On August 26th, 2013 at 7:04 PM frenchnurse said:

    My pleasure!

  16. On August 23rd, 2013 at 12:12 PM LaRae Quy said:

    Please give your wife our thanks for encouraging you to write about Ashton Kutcher's speech…I was drawn into it as soon as he mentioned that his real name wasn't Ashton Kutcher! I knew he was going to be transparent and authentic – not something we see from leaders, politicians, or celebrities.

    How much better would this world be if we didn't focus so much on the outward-driven focus of formal roles and instead looked inward for ways to value the significance of our stories and experiences?

  17. On August 26th, 2013 at 6:55 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    I think this goes back to what I wrote in reply to Carl above; that we need to ask ourselves – both individually and collectively – why do we do what we do. It has to be more than "that's my role or function" or "that's just the way things are done around here".

    If we are to improve current conditions and learn from it, we need to recognize the importance of answering this fundamental question, both in terms of our work lives and our community as well.

    Oh, and I did relay your thanks to my wife, LaRae. She got a kick out of that to be sure. 🙂

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