Gene Scanlan: The View From Skookumchuck Road: Leadership, More or Less

Gene Scanlan, Ph.D.

First, by way of explanation, I live most of the year in a small town north of Vancouver. Our road’s name reflects the area’s over 11,000 years of continuous occupation by native bands. “Skookum” in their language means strong or powerful, and “chuck” means water. Not too far north of us is a narrow inlet off the ocean that, during tidal changes, produces a huge tidal bore with waves often 6–10 feet high. Needless to say, it is a popular spot for kayakers and even surfers. Sometimes, people in our area will say something or someone is “skookum,” which means good or strong.

Now, on to one of my favorite topics: leadership. OK, I’m a fantastic leader! I moved my consulting firm from success to success, from helping small local groups to assisting international organizations. I did, from time to time, have problems with one senior staff member. He sometimes made mistakes, overlooked people’s sensitivities, put something in a final report or recommendations he shouldn’t have, and occasionally even did not work as hard as I expected him to. Some days I wanted to fire him, but since I was a one-person firm, the “him” was me!

What is leadership? Many of us have experienced bad leadership—the boss who’s demanding, the superior who operates with one set of rules for him- or herself and another set for everybody else, the person who seems to care about results more than people. On the other hand, there is the leader who respects your skills and abilities and works closely with you in a partnership or even lets you go and do your job. I once started a new job and met with my boss to ask him about his expectations. He said, “I hired you for your expertise. I assume you will do your job. If it all works out, fine. If I see or hear negative things or there are problems, we’ll talk about it.”

I just finished reading the biography Churchill: Walking with Destiny by Andrew Roberts. As I said to someone recently, I learned more about true leadership from this one book than I did from all of the leadership-focused workshops, seminars, and classes I attended in my career. Winston Churchill, in his younger years and despite his family’s illustrious background, was never predicted to be a leader. But he believed he would be. As he moved up in British politics, he made some enormous, highly public mistakes and was, for years, condemned and rejected for these. But, unlike many others, he did not give up. Each mistake was a learning experience for him. He changed, learned more, and came back, over and over. He retained his belief in himself (sometimes too much), did not always treat people well (often apologizing), kept his wicked sense of humor, and, despite his later high positions in the government, seemed to believe in people. He was not perfect as a leader or a human, but you could see his humanity. So, what did Churchill say about leadership? Here are a few quotes to ponder:

“To improve is to change, so to be perfect is to change often.”

“The price of greatness is responsibility.”

“Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm.”

“Success is not final; failure is not fatal. It is the courage to continue that counts.”

“What is adequacy? Adequacy is no standard at all.”

“It is wonderful what great strides can be made when there is a resolute purpose behind them.”

 “Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak. It’s also what it takes to sit down and listen.”

“Continuous effort—not strength or intelligence—is the key to unlocking our potential.”

“We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.”

Gene Scanlan, Ph.D.Gene Scanlan spent over 40 years in the nonprofit sector, including 25 years as a development and management consultant. He has taught graduate courses, led seminars and presentations, and authored over 20 articles and two books.

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