Are you a Leader—or a Dinosaur?


  • Author Larry C. Pickett
  • Published October 30, 2023
  • Word count 981

Are you a Leader—or a Dinosaur? By Larry C. Pickett

During my studies at Duquesne University, I still think of the age-old disputes we had about whether “leaders were born—or made.” Our discussions were insightful and always lively. Often times, we had points of view that could fall on either end of the spectrum. A large cup of coffee, a note pad, and an open mind were among the things I always brought to class.

Are leaders born with special genetic traits—or are they shaped by their environment? That’s the question. In my opinion, we start-off as “soft clay.” And over time, we’re shaped and formed by many different experiences. Eventually, we become fixed in place like a piece of “hard clay.”

But it doesn’t stop there—because a person’s upbringing has impact too. Just as a good cook adds different ingredients to prepare a meal, leaders are made the same way. They encounter all kinds of experiences, both good and bad. Even the culture of a big city can shape a leader. Pittsburgh was once known as the “Steel City.” It was like a big dinosaur that could wag its tail and send contenders scampering.

As competition increased, the Steel City lost its swagger. It was cheaper to order steel from Japan versus the plant right across the river. Clearly, the steel industry was changing, and Pittsburgh had to change too. If we didn’t, the city would literally become extinct like a dinosaur. Today, Pittsburgh is a symbol of transformation. It’s eco-friendly and green, a leader in healthcare, higher education, and well known for cutting-edge technology.

So what’s the connection between the Steel City, dinosaurs, and modern-day leadership? Well, the old leadership model was very straight-forward. Managers used to say, “I’m the boss—it’s my way or the highway.” They were like dinosaurs. But over the last two decades, I saw a transformation happen. Our workforce began to change. The demand for leaders increased as our need for managers faded away. A younger more educated generation came on the scene. And the old model of leadership became a thing of the past.

In most organizations, the days of absolute power are long gone. Because the source of power has drastically changed. Companies are smarter, and they recognize the benefits of tapping into their human assets. Organizations have become flatter in order to achieve faster results. In other words, the speed at which you can move a product to market determines success—providing of course, the product is high quality.

Today’s leaders have to be visionary and open to new ideas. They also have to understand that good ideas sometimes come from the bottom-up, and not necessarily top-down. It’s all about optimizing resources and market differentiation. Leaders need to be resilient. It’s critical that they have the ability to bounce back.

Speaking of resilience, I was as pathetic a baseball player as you can imagine. In little league, I once made all three outs in the same inning. The only saving grace for me was I only struck-out twice. As expected, the coach cut me from the team. I was very disappointed in my performance and kept practicing on my own. Despite being cut from the team, I showed up every day to watch them practice from the sidelines.

The head coach said, “Isn’t that the guy we cut last week?” Yup, the other coach said—that’s the fellow. He’s here every day before everyone else. The head coach said, “Really—well if the boy’s that persistent, give him a uniform and sit him on the bench.” By the end of the summer, I was a star third baseman with a great batting average. Here’s my point; if you want to be an effective leader, you have to be able to bounce back.

Sometimes we’re victims of our own past. I remember another situation when a co-worker asked the manager for help on a project. The manager’s lip started to quiver, his eyes turned beet red, and he yelled “I gave you all the help you’re gonna get—now make it happen!” My co-worker was convinced his manager was a born tyrant. It made him cynical. Because this particular manager was his mentor. He had taken on the exact same traits. But sadder still, my co-worker had become a tyrant just like his mentor.

He was convinced a strong leader had to “knock some heads” to gain respect. A few years later, I saw him on the street. He said “I learned a lesson the hard way. I got fired. My hard-nose attitude got me in trouble.” Basically, he tried to hold on to some primitive ways during changing times. More importantly, he tried to hold on to his respect as a leader—but he couldn’t.

I said, it’s up to you to change that image. Don’t become a victim of your past. You can still grow as a leader. Admit your faults and apologize to the people you offended. Don’t let the phantoms of your past haunt you. I further explained how leaders ought to be resilient. They need to be able to bounce back.

Learn from your mistakes. You don’t have to be a manager to be a leader, I said. However, you do have to treat people with respect and speak to them with dignity. Give others the same courtesy that you want. Bear in mind, the dinosaur is extinct—and their ways are too.

Bottom line: leaders are made—not born! They’re shaped by their experiences, both good and bad. They are resilient and able to bounce back. Unlike the dinosaur, effective leaders learn from their mistakes. Stay flexible, be open to change—and be a continuous learner.

Larry is a certified lean six sigma master black belt (MBB) and certified project manager. He leads projects from their original state to final implementation at Carnegie Mellon University. He serves as co-chair of the PM Center of Excellence at CMU. Larry earned an M.B.A. degree with an emphasis in Management of Technologies from California University of Pennsylvania, an M.S. degree in Leadership Studies from Duquesne University, and a B.A. degree from Clarion University.

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