Insights on Becoming An Inspirational Leader

2014 was another incredible year from a personal and professional growth perspective. As much as I feel very honored to work with great clients and colleagues, I am even more impressed by how inspirational they have been to me. I have personally witnessed some great things in my travels and in my practice. The themes that I saw this year were that being patient, overcoming fear, leveraging the support of others and believing in yourself can launch you to an exceptional level of performance. As someone once said, “What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail?”

The Catch

On November 23rd, thanks to an invitation from my friend, fellow rabid NY Giants fan, (and excellent exec recruiter) Bob Nesbit, I was able to see an historic feat in person during the Giants – Cowboys Sunday night game. As a local sportswriter scribed, “How many times have you seen the replay now? Ten? Twenty? A hundred or more? How many places have you seen it now? On TV as it happened? On Twitter seconds later? On the Giants’ Facebook feed? On your grandmother’s Facebook feed?”

For those who didn’t see it live (as many in New Jersey, including myself, didn’t at first – “Did he catch that??”), the simultaneous stadium reaction of the 80,000 fans to the video replay said it all, “WHOOOAAAAAAAA!!!!!!”

What’s been called “The Greatest Catch in NFL History” can only be described in phrases like unreal, twisting, acrobatic, three fingered, behind the head, one handed touchdown, Bend it Like Beckham, while being fouled and now you are an INTERNET MEME:

And to top it off, you just had your jersey sent to the Pro Football Hall of Fame after your SEVENTH professional game!

What insights can be gained from this? Large, gifted hands, two incredibly athletic parents, and years of practicing one handed catches until they become routine in the SEC certainly helped. However Shaquille O’Neal, the future Hall of Fame NBA star and Odell Beckham Jr’s. fellow LSU alumnus and mentor made a very interesting observation. He said, “I’m not surprised, you have to be elite in your profession to make a catch like that. Most receivers when they see it’s overthrown like that just [give up] . . . but the greatest players say, “If you can touch it, you can catch it.”

As I think about the best leaders I have worked with over the years, I believe they also have the quiet, but powerful confidence that lets you know that no matter how challenging or impossible an effort is, that they feel like “We’ve got this.”


The second inspirational example took place on the Mara River in the Serengeti in Tanzania in September. Each year over 1 million wildebeest and zebras make a very dangerous migration for new grazing grounds or water from Tanzania to Kenya and back again from July to October. Only the strongest survive because lions, leopards, cheetahs, hyenas and crocodiles are waiting for them almost everytime they swim across rivers. While they can reach over 500 pounds and run up to 50 mph, 3000 a year die while crossing the Mara River alone.

My wife, Patti, and I were lucky enough to see three of these crossings in three days. Two very interesting things happen when the migrating herds make the decision to swim. First of all, they usually approach the river and look for signs of danger. They go down to the water and walk back and forth along the bank looking for a safe place to cross. Many times they go right to the edge and decide not to cross there. When they do cross, it may look like a frenzy, but recent research has found that the herds actually have “swarm intelligence, whereby the animals systematically explore and overcome the obstacle as one.”

That leads to the second interesting part of this adventure. The crossings are highly unpredictable. Sometimes, you are are lucky to see multiple crossings, sometimes you may be there for days and never see any. On the other side of the river during peak season, there may be anywhere from 10-20 jeeps hiding near or behind trees about a quarter to half of a mile waiting to guess when the herds will charge. When the herds start going, the jeeps race at breakneck speed to the river’s edge to get in the best position to watch or photograph the crossing. If a guide guesses wrong and gets there too soon, the herd can reverse course (and the guide earns a lot of scorn from the other guides). If they time it right, they can give their guests an incredible experience.

Our guide, Kareem, from the Sayari camp, had a unique gift in patiently anticipating when to race to the river’s edge. Like the wildebeest, once he made the decision to drive, there was no hesitation and we often got to the river first.

So what can we learn from this? It’s hard to convey what it’s like to see thousands of animals literally swimming for their lives in the face of great danger. What impressed me was that once the lead animals were confident enough to go, they jumped in and went all out to get to the other side. Thanks to Kareem, we got within 75 yards of this spectacular crossing on the Mara.

In this first photo I shot, a 14 foot crocodile just missed biting this wildebeest.

A couple of seconds later, the crocodile caught his tail.

The good news is that this wildebeest kicked it into another gear and escaped. We watched over 2000 animals stampede over and around two giant crocodiles and they all escaped. The absolute determination and swarm intelligence “to systematically explore and overcome obstacles as one” they showed was inspiring. (Discussions about employee collaboration and commitment seem very pale in comparison!)

The cool confidence and patience that our young guide demonstrated over and over again was also impressive. We never would have had such a spectacular experience without his help and expertise.


Finally, I wanted to pay a tribute to one of the best leaders I have had the privilege to coach. He had the daunting challenge of launching a global function for one of the most famous and successful Fortune 10 companies in the world. He had a ton of strengths to leverage, but there were a couple of critical things he needed to work on.

After 6 months of coaching, he improved significantly on those development areas and his confidence grew. I continued working with him for 2 ½ more years on a variety of strategic HR Capital issues and his continued development as a leader. In that time, he got promoted and soon managed 800 employees. Recently, they increased his responsibilities to managing double that number. To top it off, he was named as a recipient of their Chairman’s Leadership Award – a very impressive achievement!

At our last lunch together, I asked him a couple of questions to see if we could figure out how he made such tremendous progress. He cited a few things:

  1. The people he’s been surrounded with – He had “good leaders who set the example and I learned from being in the room with them”.
  2. His team – He hired “some amazing folks who work well together and have performed and as a leader, I’ve benefited from it.”
  3. People on the sides – “My coach, peers, trusted confidants. I had a safe place to go.”
  4. A supportive family – “Tremendously helpful to have that support at home.”
  5. To build a legacy - It’s all about who we are and what we contribute – it’s got to matter.”

I asked him “What was the most significant impact of coaching on your development as a leader?” He said, “Having someone in your corner who is willing to give you candid advice. We need cheerleaders in life who have our best interests at heart.”

I also asked him, “What results would you attribute to coaching?” He said, “Good coaching has a multiplying effect. You encourage others to coach and be coached.”

When I reflect on the three years, I also see someone who got great support from his organization:

  1. Crystal clear developmental feedback with consequences – improve on these two things to have a shot at being promoted.
  2. A very strong mentor and a boss who both set a high bar and pushed him for success.
  3. Incredible development opportunities –External high profile industry and functional speaking opportunities, world class immersion learning programs, and many great sessions as an internal speaker and trainer. He had constant challenges - massive change, tough peers, organizational and global complexity, reorgs and politics.
  4. He was a huge reader of leadership, management and motivation books and very thoughtful in how he shared and used that learning in a practical way

Most importantly though, what I saw was the transformation of a talented guy into a very polished, inspiring leader.

Once upon a time, I had a post talent review discussion with my boss, a Sr. HR Officer who told me (when I was the head of a learning and development organization with little HR experience), “You might think I’m crazy, but I just named you as my backup.” I agreed with the first part of her sentence, but the second part of it opened a door that I had never considered. Her confidence in me changed my career trajectory.

I think in my client’s case that he just needed a little help and confidence to realize that he had a lot more potential than he ever realized.

To sum up 2014, as Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “We gain strength, and courage and confidence by each experience in which we really stop to look fear in the face . . . we must do that which we think we cannot.”

For a confidential discussion about your transformation needs, please contact us at the address below or click the Contact Us button below.

G Burns & Associates | 40 Ingram Street | Forest Hills, NY 11375

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