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Leadership isn’t about a job title—it’s about action, commitment and will. In this 30-minute talk, Courtney Lynch, a founding partner of Lead Star and co-author of Leading from the Front, discusses the seven key behaviors that effective managers embrace. Listen for the encouragement and motivation you need to step up and stand out—and be tapped for bigger roles with the responsibility you crave.
COURTNEY LYNCH is a founding partner of Lead Star. Together with partner Angie Morgan, Lead Star was created as an agile, high-caliber leadership development firm. Lynch works closely with all levels of leaders—from CEOs to frontline team members. She designs and delivers development programs that drive immediate results. From facilitating executive team sessions, to delivering high-value keynotes and conducting engaging workshops to Lead Star’s diverse portfolio of clients, it’s no wonder Lynch’s passion for leadership is contagious. She is the best-selling author of “Leading From the Front,” and has written numerous articles on behavior-based leadership and organizational excellence. She’s been a dynamic guest on CNBC, FOX News and CNN. Lynch’s efforts with Lead Star have been noted in publications ranging from Fast Company, and Inc., to The New York Times. In addition to her work with consulting clients, Lynch serves as the director of the Center for Creative Leadership’s Partner Network. Prior to starting Lead Star, Lynch’s professional experiences included service as a Captain in the United States Marine Corps, an attorney at one of the nation’s largest law firms and as a sales manager for Rational Software. She holds a law degree from William & Mary, an undergraduate degree from North Carolina State University and completed intensive studies at Cambridge University.
CFW: Welcome to the “Conference for Women Teleclass: Leadership Isn’t About a Job Title. It’s About Action and Behavior.” Our guest today is Courtney Lynch, a founding partner of Lead Star, a leadership development firm and co-author of “Spark: How to Lead Yourself and Others to Greater Success.” She is the best-selling author of “Leading from the Front,” and a former captain in the United States Marine Corp.
In today’s teleclass, Courtney will show you how to find leaders at any level of an organization not just at the upper echelons. These are the sparks, the doers, thinkers, innovators and key influencers for catalysts, for personal and organizational change. Before we start, you can download a free excerpt from “Spark” by texting the word ‘leadstar’, that’s L-E-A-D-S-T-A-R to the following number, 66866. Again, text the word ‘leadstar’ to the number 66866 for a free excerpt from “Spark.” Now, Courtney Lynch, welcome to the Conference for Women teleclass.
Courtney: Thank you so much. It’s wonderful to be here. I have had such a great opportunity, and I really enjoyed participating in the conferences around the country. Karen, I’m glad we could come together and talk in the teleclass today.
CFW: Great. We’re delighted to have you. I want to start with “Spark.” You write about what you call seven key behaviors that anyone can take on to become a leader. I’m wondering if we could walk through those one at a time. Let’s just start with the first trait of a leader, the first trait of a spark.
Courtney: Absolutely. I’m more than willing to walk through them. I think it’s important to know it’s interesting, as a former Marine Corp officer, people will say there’s no such thing as an ex-Marine. “Once a Marine, always a Marine.” I was quite surprised during my early days of military training that literally they had me spend thousands of hours building pure behavior-based leadership skills.
When I joined the Marine Corp, I thought certainly I would be doing a variety of things when it came to training. I think I pictured a lot of things that were outdoors and running through the woods and maybe my face painted in camouflage. While those things did happen, I was surprised to see how methodical and deliberate the Marine Corp was about building my leadership capacity from a behavior-based perspective.
They knew that I was going to be in a position of authority, ultimately. Yet, they wanted me to have the skillsets to go with that leadership role. I think it’s important for all of us to recognize that you don’t have to be a manager to be a leader. Yet if you are a manager and you want to be noticed as a real leader, the things that are important to do are to demonstrate those behaviors that allow you to earn credibility.
As we walk through the seven traits of a spark, I want everyone to keep in mind that this is a pathway to helping yourself develop the skills necessary to influence outcomes and inspire others. That’s how at my firm, Lead Star, we define a leader. We disconnected from power, prestige and authority. Those things aren’t bad or wrong, but we do really focus on one’s ability to influence outcomes and inspire others. That’s leadership.
CFW: What is the first trait of a spark?
Courtney: The first trait is really understanding what do you value as an individual? I think that in different seasons of our career, we have more of an opportunity to explore this. In our earliest stages as a professional, we’re focused on getting the job done. We’re focused on going the extra mile. Maybe we want to earn a paycheck that covers our expenses.
Yet as we progress in our careers, it’s much more important, it becomes much more important to really understand what do we value? What’s important to us? Is it opportunity? Is it family? Is it the desire and opportunity to be creative? Is it structure? Just really understanding what’s important to us, when do we work best and how do we start to put ourselves in professional opportunities that are very consistent with what we value.
One of the things we did when we were writing “Spark” is we wanted to make it an interactive experience. One, we hope it’s a book that people will want to read in community, will read in small groups. Then, two, a chance for people to really reflect individually, deeply about some of these core topics that come up in the book, the seven traits in particular. What we’ve done to do that is we’ve prepared a whole website. Your listeners are welcome to go there. It’s www.SparksLead so just S-P-A-R-K-S-L-E-A-D.us. “Sparks Lead Us,” is really what it works out to be. That’s what happens.
Sparks are the ones that influence and inspire in the working world. We’ve set aside some exercises. If you’re even thinking that’s big, what do I value, what are values, we’ve listed out tons of them for you to really just pick through an inventory and really triage what’s most important to you. We found that people are able to bring their strengths, their performance, their intelligence, their skills much better to environments where they feel they are valuable and they feel that they are valued as well.
CFW: Courtney, can you give that website address one more time for those who want to log on?
Courtney: Sure. It’s just SparksLead.us so S-P-A-R-K-S-L-E-A-D.us.
Courtney: Again, the exercise is there. You can download and focus on really trying to understand what do I truly value both personally and professionally?
CFW: Leading with your own values would be the first trait of a spark. What is the next trait that is important?
Courtney: I think the key is your own, personal credibility. People follow those that they trust. People have to know that they can trust you. You build trust without even realizing it by the credible performance that you demonstrate. Think about what does success look like in the world in which you work? There are all these different standards. Some of those standards, we agree with. Some of those standards, maybe we don’t agree with. Yet, the key is we work with leaders to meet those standards and to be credible.
Then, we have the ability to influence and potentially change the ones that we don’t agree with. We also, again, build that trust with others when they see us meeting performance standards. Credibility really is the foundation of any successful leadership style. When you can perform credibly, when you can do what needs to be done, you’re going to be the person that people seek out when they are wanting to be influenced or they need inspiration.
CFW: For those who just joined us or who would like a brief review, I’m wondering if we could just take a moment and define what you mean by a spark.
Courtney: A spark is that person or that moment. We spark as individuals, or we are sparks as individuals meaning that person that really is effective at getting results, getting the work done. Sometimes, we have those moments. Our spark moments can be where we realize we have all the technical training or all the degrees or all the credentials, but it’s our ability to lead people.
You manage things. You lead people. That is what’s going to allow us to level up and achieve that next goal or that next outcome that we desire. I think, again, we can be sparks, those people that lead effectively. We can be in a spark moment where we have to really dig deep within ourselves and figure out what’s the path forward for me. It might require us to do something that’s counterintuitive or something that’s different than our habits or our instincts have led us to do in the past.
It’s interesting as we are talking about these seven traits. When we think about the third trait, demonstrating accountability, it’s so valuable. It’s so important when you’re working to seek, to build the respect necessary to influence and inspire. Accountability, I mean it is so easy for us to instantly begin placing blame when something goes wrong. We have learned, as a society, to blame the credit card companies for us going in debt or the fast food restaurants for making us fat.
I mean it’s just become the thing to do is to look outside of ourselves. Whereas leaders really work to override those natural, human instincts of self-preservation. Instead, they seek to own problems, really seeking to take responsibility before they begin to place any blame. Certainly, as leaders, as women, we are not responsible for everything in the world.
The key, though, is when problems happen, do we look within first? What about our actions contributed? Maybe it was an inaction. We should have taken more of initiative or more proaction towards resolving a challenge. Whatever it is, leaders look within first. That’s accountability. Then, they work to shape circumstances and influence things that are beyond their direct control.
CFW: To review, the first trait of a spark or of a leader is to, one, lead with your own values. Two, to be credible. Three, to demonstrate accountability. What comes fourth?
Courtney: Fourth is all about our decision-making ability. Again, we want to shape circumstances not be at the mercy. It’s very important for us, as leaders, to have a clear vision and to make the choices that are consistent with it. It’s interesting. Sparks achieve the success that they seek because they recognize that the seemingly very small choice today will have a big impact on fulfillment for the future. That’s extremely important.
It’s the tiny, little things. We’ll talk a little bit later about consistency and readiness. Yet decisive, intentional action is the mark of a spark and the mark of a leader. Are we making decisions, or are we more often at the mercy of circumstances? We all know the feeling. We’ve all had those days where we feel like we’re just reacting to the world around us. That’s all we’re capable of doing. I think the key is to bring accountability to those moments.
When we feel that way, is it just a bad Tuesday? Is this a pattern for us leaders? How do we step up, take charge of circumstances, make decisions which means taking risks at times and then knowing that when we make the bad choice or the bad decision which is going to happen to all of us? The only thing certain about us as human beings is that we’re going to make mistakes. The key is when we recognize that the choice we’ve made is a poor one, how quickly do we course-correct? How do we make that next best, timely decision?
CFW: How does a leader acknowledge a poor decision or the wrong decision without losing credibility?
Courtney: I think the key is you lose credibility when you don’t acknowledge it. That’s the funny thing. Our poor choices and our mistakes, other people seem to be able to see them much more clearly than we do at times. I think if we lack accountability, if we lack that ability to step up and say, “This is the wrong call. Here’s what I’ve learned. Here’s where I’m going next,” that’s when we’re in danger of losing trust and credibility. Again, we can’t be perfect but we can work certainly to perfect our response to those poor choices, being accountable and then making that next best decision even if it requires more courage to do so and to admit those mistakes.
CFW: We’re up to the fifth trait which is be of service.
Courtney: That is right. So much of leadership is about looking out for others, taking care of others, understanding unmet needs and helping to have those needs met. It doesn’t have to be dramatic. It can be the simplest thing. We see someone in the morning. We ask them, “How are you doing? Good morning. How is your day going?”
A lot of times, that’s a drive-by action. We just say it, and we keep on moving. Sometimes just taking five or ten minutes to listen to how someone’s evening was or what’s going on with the sick child in their family or some of their thoughts or impressions about a sporting event or current headlines, taking time to really just spend time with people and be in that listen mode and understand who this person is and how you can be of value to them. We might have a colleague going on vacation.
Can we be the person if we know they need to be out of the office early on Friday that comes on Wednesday proactively and says, “I know you’re getting ready to head out for a week. How can I take something off your plate? What can I do to add value,” and not just from a lip-service perspective but from a sincere desire to take on a task. It’s hard for us to ask for help. It’s hard for us to receive help. Service-based leaders just take that discomfort right away. They’re there to serve, and they’re there to support.
CFW: Is that something you learned in the military that what you called service-based leadership?
Courtney: I love it, Karen, that you’re making that connection because you’re spot-on. That’s one thing we learned in the Marine Corp. Certainly big missions, you’re there for your country. You’re there because you have a sense of pride and patriotism. Yet ultimately, when the chips are down, it’s about the guy or gal to the left of you or the guy or gal to the right of you.
How are you going to make sure they stay safe and that they have what they need? Yes. Very much, so much of our early training was about subordinating our own needs. I mean we weren’t allowed to use the word ‘I’. It wasn’t about us being absorbed into the pack. It was about us becoming more self-aware of how often we are self-focused. If we can just, 15 minutes a day, focus purely on the needs of others and how we can proactively do something to help meet those needs, we’re going to be in a better place as leaders when it comes to earning credibility and trust.
The key is it has to be sincere, though. Superficial, “I’m just going to go and try to be everybody’s best friend,” isn’t going to be helpful. It’s about substantive needs. “I recognize Paul needs a development opportunity when it comes to communication skills. I’m going to set aside some budget and help identify the right training. Then, I’m going to give Paul that opportunity.” I’m empowering him. I’m not coddling him or enabling him. I’m helping to set him up for success.
CFW: We’re almost to the end of our leadership traits. Number six, why don’t you explain that one?
Courtney: It’s all about confidence. I think one of the interesting things about confidence and it was a real ah-ha moment for me is that confidence isn’t a skill. It’s an emotion and when we understand that confidence is an emotion and we start to recognize why it can be volatile and often times absent when we need it the most. In “Spark,” we write about helping people understand how confidence is formed through internal dialogs, internal narratives, things we’re doing within ourselves.
Are we giving ourselves positive self-appraisals? Are we minimizing how others influence our perspective of ourself? Are we able to keep fear, worry and insecurity, some very, very common, human emotions at bay? Are we able to celebrate and recognize our successes, again, in a very internal way? You don’t have to be arrogant or tell everybody how great you are. Just sincerely inside, do you demonstrate some of the key behaviors that allow you to project that strong confidence?
There’s a great expression in our society that I think is a little over-used. It’s this classic, “Fake it until you make it.” In reality, that’s impossible. We have to actually work sincerely to build confidence. It can be done with practice. You can even out your ability to feel this emotion. I think we just have to understand a little bit about what it takes. We were very diligent with our research and bringing some practical prescription to that in our book, “Spark.”
CFW: We’re going to review all seven traits in just a moment and give people the web address again. Let’s finish up with the seventh and final traits.
Courtney: Thank you. I appreciate this. This is one that I think resonates so strongly in the fast-paced culture in which we’re all living. The world is moving at a dynamic rate. Yet it makes this more elusive and difficult to do, but it’s more imperative. What I’m talking about is demonstrating consistency. Standards have eroded. It is not uncommon for someone to have a 2:00 PM meeting with you and at 1:55 PM, cancel it because they have something else going on.
You tell someone, “I’m going to get you that report by Thursday.” Thursday comes around, and you know that Mary is really not at her desk, and you could wait until Friday. We’re kind of so burned out, I think, at times that we let the little things slip. This seventh aspect of being an effective leader and having that credibility to influence and inspire is all about the little things that allow you to be consistent.
Certainly, some of it is not over-committing. The types of decisions we make, we have to be very honest with what our true capacity is but then aspects around time management. Really, truly how do we prioritize so that we can be consistent and allocate our very, very limited, non-renewable resource of time effectively? I think it’s interesting. Our seventh trait is extremely practical yet extremely necessary in the world in which we’re living.
CFW: The seven traits, I’m going to review them and give the web address again so that people can go back and review this material. The seven traits of a spark are lead with your own values. Two, be credible. Three, demonstrate accountability. Four, make decisions that matter. Five, be of service. Six, build your confidence. Seven, demonstrate consistency. All of that material is available at this website, SparksLead.us. Let’s move on. If I’m an employer and I’m hiring, I’m thinking I want a workplace filled with sparks. How do you recognize a spark during the interview process?
Courtney: I love it that you asked that question. That’s when my consulting firm, Lead Star, works with an organization. That’s what we’re doing. We’re helping them identify sparks. We’re helping them harness their sparks. It’s a little different than the traditional, high-potential programs. Sometimes, sparks don’t show up on paper. They show up in thought, word, deed and behavior. I think in an interview, that’s what you’re looking for. How does this person own the mistakes that they’ve made professionally?
When you talk to them and you give them perspective on what the business is doing or the organization they are seeking employment in, how can they creatively brainstorm ideas that would be helpful? You’re not looking for right answers in an interview process. You’re looking to see how do they think creatively? How do they practice initiative in the context of dissecting a challenge or real-world challenge that the organization is facing?
You’re looking for those abilities to get things done, to take action, to be decisive, to demonstrate that confidence, to showcase how they’re consistent. They don’t need the spotlight all the time. They’re going to consistently work to get the job done. You’re really assessing credibility, and you’re getting to know them as a person. What do they value? Is there a fit? Is there compatibility with what you, as the interviewer, know your organization’s values and priorities to be?
CFW: I would imagine in interviews, most candidates are going to say, “I’m a team player.” What’s your weakness? “I’m a perfectionist.”
Courtney: “I work too much.” “I come to work all day Saturday,” those things that are weaknesses but make us look great. I know exactly what you’re talking about.
CFW: How do you discern the true spark? What is it that comes through in a first impression or a first meeting with someone that says, “This person is going to be a spark in my organization?”
Courtney: I’ll tell you. It comes down to this. They are not focused on proving themselves. They are focused on expressing themselves. It can sound very, very nuanced but it’s a big difference. Someone that comes in and is trying to tell you how great they are and keeps referencing the Ivy League school they attended or the famous people they know, that’s someone that’s trying to prove themselves.
Someone who’s expressing themselves is talking very candidly about short-comings. They’re not just the short-comings that sound positive. They’re really owning them. Then, they’re sharing their ideas. They’re not worried about being right. They’re worried about adding value and being relevant. I think there’s a real difference. It’s interesting you ask this question.
I was just doing a couple of interviews, screens for a client today. Two candidates on paper, very similar but in talking with them, very different. One had that demeanor to confidently express short-comings and strengths. The other was more about, “Let’s talk about the paper and the accolades and the checked boxes,” versus the true results.
CFW: I’m wondering about the flipside of being a spark. Do sparks ever rub their colleagues the wrong way by coming off as too ambitious especially, let’s say, if it’s somebody not on top of the organization but a junior person? How do you express your sparkness without –
Courtney: Do people get annoyed by strong performers? Absolutely, but that performer is performing. That spark is doing it with grace, dignity and a sense of humility. They’re not doing it with a banner of, “I’m great.” They’re doing it by waving a flag of, “What’s valuable?” Maybe it’s talking about the problem here. Maybe it’s brainstorming a different circumstance or different solution. Maybe it’s addressing the elephant in the room.
They’re doing things that, at times, are very unpopular. Yes, will they ruffle feathers? Perhaps. Yet, they’re doing it with dignity and grace. Again, they’re not proving themselves. They’re working to express what needs to be expressed. Do they have to have a bit of a strong outer shell, a little bit of Teflon, so to speak? Certainly. I think that’s a lot easier to access when you’re really doing things that are consistent with your values and you’re trying to do your best which is not perfection for the right reasons for the organization.
I think that it becomes clear. Sparks don’t always have to wave the flag up. People recognize them. They know who they are, those key influencers. Again, ironically, it’s not always connected to title, power or position or authority. A lot of times, your sparks are right at the frontlines of the organization and maybe not in the supervisory or the management ranks as much. It depends on the organization.
CFW: I am fascinated. I’m going to switch gears for a moment. I’m fascinated by your experience as an officer in the United States Marine Corp. I’m wondering if you could tell us a bit about what led you to the Marine Corp, how long you served. For the purpose of today’s teleclass, what were your takeaways from your military service that transfer into your current work?
Courtney: I love it. It’s a great question. I like to joke that I ended up in the Marine Corp because the judge said, “Six months, serve your country,” or I’ll spend some time. That wasn’t the case. I wasn’t sentenced to it. I was a challenge junkie. Candidly, I had a lot of dreams that I couldn’t afford. I wanted to go to law school. My parents, I’m one of five, had put me through my undergraduate experience but there weren’t the resources for the grad school. I knew I needed to find a way to fulfill some of the dreams that I had
The Marine Corp offered a lot of opportunity. Yet, I didn’t realize the hidden opportunity was truly learning to lead. Again, I go back to those thousands of hours, literally, that the Corp invested in me. I really believe better leaders, better world. That’s why my business partner, Angie and I, at Lead Star today, she’s also one of the co-authors on “Spark,” we really believe in sharing leadership lessons.
If people really understand the behaviors associated with leadership, I think at times it’s easy to get drawn into the headlines and politics and all this other side of leadership that I think if we reimagine leadership in an everyday way and we all demonstrate greater credibility, greater accountability, a stronger sense of service, it’s amazing how powerful it is. I’ve seen it work with my clients from a business perspective when they’re seeking to increase the bottom line and then get greater results, nonprofits we worked with that have sought to have a greater impact.
When you empower and build leaders at every level just like the military does, you get better results whatever your organization’s mission or purpose is. I joined the Marine Corp seeking challenge, and I got it. One of the aspects was learning how to be a minority in an organization. Out of 180,000 Marines, at any given time, only about 1,000 are female Marine Corp officers. I was a very significant minority.
What that impressed upon me was that performance matters. You need to understand what are the standards? Sometimes, there are unwritten rules in organizations. Sometimes, there are politics and relationships. You need to work to be very much aware of that and work to meet and exceed those standards. When you perform, people trust you and they respect you. That’s the way to lead.
To be successful is to understand what does great performance look like to do it with a humility and grace and a willingness to bring others along and sincerely caring for and respecting the viewpoints and vantage points of others? You’re not always going to agree. Leadership gets you into some challenging circumstances. Yet, you can always respect and seek to serve others as you bring them along or certainly as you follow them or are willing to be part of their leadership as well.
CFW: What’s one of the biggest leadership challenges you faced as a Marine Corp officer?
Courtney: I think it was carrying the weight of the minority status meaning if I didn’t perform well, if I fell out of a run, let’s just take fitness. It’s an obvious thing in the Marine Corp. To get a perfect score, it was three miles in 21 minutes. If I were to have had a problem completing any of the tasks asked, it would have been reflected on my entire minority class.
It wouldn’t have been Courtney can’t do it well. It would have been women aren’t doing well here. I think that was powerful to understand that. One of my male peers had a bad day. It was, “John had a bad day today.” For me, I felt that heightened sense of really making sure I delivered on performance so that my entire minority class didn’t take a hit.
CFW: I’m wondering about translating or transferring skills into the civilian sector. Obviously, you can give your Marines an order. They’ll salute and execute. How do you get that same result in a civilian workplace?
Courtney: See, that’s not true. That’s a myth of the military. In fact, I tell it like you can salute and command because you control purse strings a lot more in a private sector setting than you do in the military. In the military, respect is earned. There’s a special term called ‘gaffing off’. People will not salute and follow orders. Hollywood leads us to believe that.
Your depth of trust, integrity and respect, I think, is even more important when you’re asking people to put their lives on the line. It’s directly relevant. Anything I do, an ounce of leadership goes so far in the private sector or the military to leverage our inherent personalities, our talents, our learned academic credentials or technical skills. The challenges people in the private sector haven’t had as much opportunity to truly learn leadership.
There’s a lot of misconception. “I’m leadership. I’m in a position of authority,” versus, “I’m a leader. It’s how I behave.” I think that’s the real great takeaway from the military. Leadership was not about being the boss. It was about the character and competence you demonstrated. I think that’s so relevant to the private sector employer or employee as well.
CFW: Thank you for clarifying that. I really appreciate it, and I know our listeners do too. We are almost out of time. I know that there is a way for readers to get a free excerpt from “Spark.” I was wondering if you could share that with everybody because it’s fascinating stuff.
Courtney: Absolutely. I hope people take time to read “Spark.” It’s a quick read. It’s an honest read. It’s a failure book. We talk about how we learned leadership the hard way. I’ve made a lot of mistakes trying to improve my ability to influence and inspire. If I can share them with others and they can be better off for it, I’m happy to do so. If anyone wants an excerpt of “Spark,” please just send a text to this number, 66866.
Again, that’s 66866. Just send a text that way, and you’ll get an excerpt of our book and an opportunity to connect to our weekly leadership moments. We don’t spam people. We, just on Monday morning, send a couple of paragraphs about leadership. It might be relevant research we’re doing or something practical that we’ve seen with one of the great clients that we work with. Again, it’s just a simple text message. You’ll get some prompts. If you just text a message to 66866, you’ll be good to go.
CFW: Be sure to include the word ‘leadstar’. That’s L-E-A-D-S-T-A-R when you text 66866. That is all we have time for today. A reminder, today’s teleclass will be availed as a podcast on your conference website. If you registered using Eventbrite, you will receive an email telling you when the podcast is available. Our thanks to Courtney Lynch, co-author of “Spark: How to Lead Yourself and Others to Greater Success.”
Courtney: Thanks so much. It was great to talk with you, Karen.
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