Your Top Responsibility as a Leader

Abraham Lincoln once said, “Give me six hours to chop down a tree—and I will spend the first four sharpening my axe.”

President Lincoln understood something that few leaders buy into and even fewer practice today. It’s the art of development. Even in his day, when change happened more slowly than it does today, Lincoln recognized the vital importance of improvement and preparation. Developing oneself. Getting better every day.

Call it the priority of growth.

I believe this is rule number one for leaders in the 21st century. Rule number two is a close second: develop the people around you. Leaders are like gardeners—they are best known for the kind of teams they grow in their environment. They are about “growing leaders,” knowing that if they practice this, goals will naturally be reached.

  • Not just doing programs—but developing people.
  • Not just distributing products—but developing people.
  • Not just discussing proposals—but developing people.

It’s been said, “When people know you have a vested interest in their success, tough discussions become easier, issues are addressed rather than avoided and solutions are presented by team members rather than prodded from them.”

Andrew Carnegie was an excellent example of this kind of leader. He came to America as a young immigrant from Scotland. He worked a variety of odd jobs and ended up as the largest steel manufacturer in the nation.

During his career, he became the wealthiest man in America. To illustrate how rich he was, he sold the Carnegie Steel Company to J. P. Morgan for $480 million in 1901. That would be almost $400 billion today. What’s more, he was a generous philanthropist, donating today’s equivalent of $79 billion to charities and schools.

I love telling one of the greatest stories from his career. At one point, Carnegie had 43 millionaires working for him. In the late 19th century a millionaire was very rare. A reporter once asked him how he managed to hire 43 millionaires. Carnegie replied that those men were not millionaires when they started working for him, but they had become millionaires as a result.

The reporter followed up with, “How did you develop these men to become so valuable that you’d paid them this much money?” Carnegie replied that people are developed the same way gold is mined. When gold is mined, several tons of dirt must be moved to get an ounce of gold, but one doesn’t go into the mine looking for dirt—one goes in looking for the gold.

So, how do we mine for gold in the people we lead?

Asking the Right Questions to Prioritize Growth

Let me pose ten questions to begin with as you invest in your team:

1. In what areas do they need to grow? (This answer is up to you.)

2. In what areas do they want to grow? (This answer is up to them.)

3. What will they need to see and do to improve in those areas?

4. What is standing in the way of their growth in these areas?

5. Who would they benefit from meeting in order to grow in those areas?

6. Where could they visit that would improve their perspective?

7. What new responsibility could they assume that would stretch them?

8. How could they profit from more time with you? Is that possible?

9. In what areas will the future require them to grow?

10. What is the first step they should take?

I always practice better leadership when I remember that my number one priority (as a leader) is growing the people on my team. This requires me to focus on the future, not just today and on others’ development—not just mine. Why? There’s gold out there in those people that needs to be mined.

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Your Top Responsibility as a Leader