Throughout my career in training and development, I’ve often been asked: What makes a leader? Famed singer/songwriter and businesswoman Dolly Parton once said: “If your actions create a legacy that inspires others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, then, you are an excellent leader.” American author, entrepreneur and teacher Seth Godin described leadership as “the art of giving people a platform for spreading ideas that work.” The truth is, the personal styles of leaders vary, and many things embody the spirit of leadership.
“If your actions create a legacy that inspires others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, then, you are an excellent leader.”
– Dolly Parton
Through the “Way to Lead” component of our Build U initiative, Gresham Smith is focused on growing and developing leaders within our firm. In my blog post Oh the Places You’ll Grow: Maximizing Professional Growth Opportunities, I explored the subject of leadership and how professional growth isn’t simply about ascending the corporate ladder—it’s about broadening who you are so you’re ready when the right opportunity comes along. I recently had the chance to sit down with members of our firmwide leadership team to get their thoughts on leadership. In this post, I share some highlights of that discussion.
Sara Rayman (SR): Do you have any examples or stories from your childhood that indicated you would be a good leader?
Al Pramuk (AP): During my childhood, I was quite introverted and didn’t think of myself as a leader or a follower. However, when I reflect on my childhood years, I realize that I was very competitive, not only as a student but also as an athlete. Consequently, I took with me many powerful lessons learned from coaches that are vital for leaders. These lessons underscored the importance of character, commitment, persistence and helping your teammates—both on and off the field.
Jim Langlois (JL): My “aha moment” came when I was in the sixth grade and began taking church-sponsored bicycle trips. Each summer, our group of 20 would set out on a weeklong adventure that started in my hometown of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and extended through some of New England’s most scenic bike trails. I’ve always had an uncanny sense of direction, and during that first cycling trip I found myself riding out in front of the “pack.” This led to becoming the group leader, and eventually an organizer and coach. For our final trip, we pedaled all the way to Nova Scotia, Canada—a bunch of mid-teens with no parental supervision! Nonetheless, it was a great opportunity for me to lead and encourage, and for us to succeed as a team.
Jessica K. Lucyshyn (JKL): Although I have always been internally driven to succeed, as a kid, I wasn’t involved in groups that allowed me to pursue leadership. However, I found my stride in college. I joined a sorority as a freshman and served in leadership roles that culminated in my election as chapter president. Through that involvement, I became active in student government, serving as the College of Engineering representative, and on a student-led group called Consultants for Effective Leadership (CEL). As a member of CEL, I provided coaching to other student organizations, covering topics such as time management and organization.
Peter Oram (PO): While I didn’t put myself forward to lead during my childhood years, I was often put into leadership positions, whether it be with sports teams or in other team situations. This recognition of my capabilities has been a recurring theme throughout my career. Although I’ve been managing large numbers of staff since my early 20s, I was generally put into those positions by other people. It has only been in the last 10 years or so as my career has matured that my capabilities have become apparent to me. I’ll leave it to others as to whether I’m a good leader. What I do know is that I have the capabilities, and that I’m always in the process of learning.
“I took with me many powerful lessons learned from coaches that are vital for leaders…” — Al Pramuk
“I’ve had five true mentors in my life–all very different, yet all were generous, patient and talented, and all allowed for failure ahead of their success.” — Jim Langlois
SR: Name a person(s) who has had a tremendous impact on you as a leader. Why and how did they impact your life?
Leith Oatman (LO): My family has had the biggest impact on me as a leader. I was the last of four siblings and we all attended the same schools. “Miss Englewood,” captain of the golf team, and a valedictorian had all blazed a trail before me. So, by the time I arrived, the expectations had well and truly been set if your last name was Oatman! We were raised with a spirit of servitude in our DNA, which meant offering yourself up to lead, surrounding yourself with people who counterbalanced your weaknesses, and always being aware that you have what you have—and you are who you are—by the grace of God.
Altan Cekin (AC): My father has always been my role model. Now retired, he was the regional director for a bank. He treated everyone with respect, regardless of their job description, and I witnessed that firsthand every time I visited him at work. I was one of three boys, and my father instilled in us that if you treat others the way you want to be treated, and are honest no matter the circumstances, that people will respect you and want to work with you, whether they’re a client or an employee.
“I believe a leader’s role is to enable their team to do their job effectively. Hire people that you can trust and then be there for them.” — Altan Cekin
“We were raised with a spirit of servitude in our DNA, which meant offering yourself up to lead…” — Leith Oatman
What is one characteristic you believe every leader should possess?
Carolyn Kitts (CK): Compassion. Without it, you may not gain the full respect of your team. In HR, we know what people deal with on a daily basis. Compassion not only gets us through but also demonstrates that we truly care about the person, not simply what they produce.
PO: Self-awareness. To lead effectively, you must also understand your own strengths and weaknesses.
AP: Empathy. Most people won’t become committed if the leader doesn’t understand them or care about their situation.
LO: A sense of humor. It’s important not to take yourself too seriously. If you can’t do that, then you will probably end up very lonely at the top.
JKL: Commitment. I believe this shows up as commitment professionally to employees, projects and clients, plus personal commitment to different facets of my life.
“I have always been internally driven to succeed.” — Jessica K. Lucyshyn
“I believe that leaders must be great listeners. During my childhood, I was always “the one” my friends would turn to if they had a problem. I listened really well, and I learned that most of the time that is all they were seeking.” — Carolyn Kitts
What book/resource recommendations do you have for others?
JL: Who Said Elephants Can’t Dance? This is an excellent book on business transformation and daring to follow your instincts.
CK: One of the best motivational books I have ever read is Take the Stairs. It’s a quick read that demonstrates what it takes to excel in any facet of your life.
AP: Good to Great, Getting to Yes, and Talent Wins. These books address many foundational issues that seem to come up on a regular basis—even years after reading them.
“Throughout my career I’ve worked with hundreds of people, including many different managers and leaders, and I’ve always tried to learn as much as I could from all of them–particularly the good leaders.” — Peter Oram
SR: What motivates you to lead your team?
AP: Winning—measured as an organizational culture that attracts and develops people who work together toward a common goal of being relevant to our clients and improving the built environment.
LO: My team! They’re consistently teaching me new things and pointing out areas where I can improve.
JL: With some help from me, seeing someone exceed at their own expectations, and then watching that person do the same for others.
CK: The desire to help others excel in their role so they benefit along with the firm.
AC: Helping them to feel accomplished and happy in all they do!
PO: I want them to be successful and to have the opportunities to learn and to grow.
JKL: Seeing people working diligently, enjoying time with their coworkers, and expressing a feeling of a job well done.