This is Part 4 in a series of interviews with the gurus of leadership and management theory.
Robin Sharma is a Toronto-based leadership development expert who has written 11 books, including the mega-hit The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari. His most recent, The Leader Who Has No Title, another fable, shows how to be a leader no matter where you are in the corporate hierarchy. In this interview, he shares some timeless truths about life and leadership.
What led to The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari? What were you trying to do in writing it, and what were the main messages you wanted to send?
The journey started about 13 years ago. I was a litigation lawyer, working in downtown Toronto. I was successful, yet I was very unfulfilled. I had the sense that I really wasn't living according to my values and I didn't have the passion or sense of mission I was looking for.
I started to reflect more deeply on my values, the kind of work I felt would be meaningful, and on what it took to make a great life. I interviewed elders, I read a lot of philosophical books, I read a lot of the great biographies, and I learned some simple ideas and practical tools that made a profound transformation in who I was as a person.
I decided to share the idea and everything I learned with other people. I wrote and published The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari in a Kinko's copy shop in Toronto. My mother was my editor; my father helped me sell it, one book at a time. I'm a believer in the idea that every dream starts out small, like this one, and step by step it started to grow. The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari became a word-of-mouth best-seller.
If I had to pick one message to take from the book, it's that there are no extra people on the planet; we are all here for a purpose, and every single one of us has talents that we may not be aware of. When we discover those talents and have the courage to pursue that purpose, our lives not only become much more fulfilling, but we make a dent in the universe. I think part of why so most people like The Monk is that there were a lot of timeless truths about what life is all about wrapped up into an interesting story about a superstar lawyer who gave it all up to move to the Himalayas to discover the philosophy.
What are those timeless principles?
One of the most important ones is that the fears you do not face become your walls. Most people in business, and in their personal lives, design everything so they can avoid doing what makes them feel uncomfortable. Yet any good business person knows we are not only paid to work but also we are paid to be scared. So the more you confront your fears, the more confidence grows within you and the more fulfilling your life will be.
A second idea is the importance of relationships. The business of business is relationships; the business of life is human connection. We live in a world where many of us have a lot of friends on Facebook but yet we have lost human connection. I reminded people in the book of the essence of relationships, and how some of our greatest happiness comes in connecting with other people at an authentic level.
Another vital idea in The Monk is the importance of doing valuable work. A job is "only a job" if you see it merely as a job. Every single job offers us a chance to express our creative potential and also to make a difference.
Finally, one of the ideas I talked about was enjoying the process as we go through life. It sounds so obvious but there are still many people who don't discover what life is about until they get to the end. We need to open our eyes to the fact no matter how difficult things may be, there are things to be grateful for. We must learn to enjoy the process of life – learn from the struggles, and celebrate the times on the mountain top. That's part of the game of life.
In most of your books, if not all of them, you stress the importance of starting your day early and with some timeless wisdom. Do you want to explain why I should get up at an unseemly hour?
If we heard of an elite athlete who didn't practice, we would be shocked. In business, as well as our personal life, we're athletes. If you really want to be world class – to be the best you can be – it comes down to preparation and practice.
Too many people start their day like a five-alarm fire. Instead, I teach people to start their day a little earlier than they usually do, and urge them to take the time to prepare, to practise, so when you get to work it's show time and you're at your best.
There are many different things you can do. For example, prepare yourself mentally, by reading inspirational books, biographies or leadership books. Write in a journal, which gives you perspective in a world where a lot of people are busy being busy. Writing in a journal reminds you of your goals and of your learning in life. It offers a place where you can hold a deliberate, thoughtful conversation with yourself.
Another thing you can do is exercise. When you exercise first thing in the morning, you take control of your own biochemistry and dump endorphins into your bloodstream. That will make you happier, or give you more energy or stamina at work. You can plan your day in the morning. A lot of people don't have a simple plan for their day and, as a result, other people's priorities become their own priorities. It's better to be deliberate and focused, working from the morning's game plan.
The best performers take the time at the beginning of the day to prepare, to get in the mindset and the heart-set so they perform at their best.
What exactly is this notion of a leader without title?
The old model of leadership is obsolete. It was based on command and control, derived from the military. It tells us that individuals with titles and authority are the people who can have an impact. The new model of leadership tells us leadership is not about a title purely; it's not about the office you sit in; it's not about where you are on the organization chart. Leadership is more about three things: your impact, or ability to get results; your influence, which means leaving people better than you found them; and your inspiration, your ability to uplift people rather than bring them down.
The good news is that any person in any organization can now show leadership. It doesn't mean they will run the organization, or make strategic decisions about the future, or be the CEO. It simply means any person in any organization has the power to be the CEO of their own job. They have the power to influence other people. They have the power to carry out genius-level work. They have the power to have an impact on other people.
The number one competitive advantage of any business right now is its ability to grow leaders without title in every level of the organization faster than the competition.
How do I do that?
You start with training, coaching and building a culture of leadership. Share the philosophy and coach people so they know how to lead without title. Train them to understand anyone can show leadership in the work they are doing.
What about someone who isn't in an organization that is receptive or is in an organization that is receptive but is dealing with an overbearing and controlling boss.
My advice to anyone in that situation is to follow the words of Mahatma Gandhi: "Be the change you want to see in the world." The best ways to influence a team or even a difficult boss is to model the behaviours you most believe in. Do your best work; be the most optimistic person in the room; develop the people around you and inspire them; and shape the culture around you. Model the leader without title philosophy, and start it cascading throughout the organization.
Are there any other special ideas you are promulgating now?
First is be a disruptor, or otherwise you'll be disrupted. A lot of people in business are hoping to ride out what may be a double-dip recession. They cling to the way they used to do things, hoping everything will return to the way it was. That won't happen. Either disrupt the way you worked yesterday – the way you did business yesterday – or you and your organization will be disrupted.
The second notion I have been evangelizing is to fire yourself. If you look at the best entrepreneurs and business people, they are really good at just a few things. So the smart move for a business person is to fire yourself from all the things you are mediocre at so you can focus on doing the few things you are really, really good at.
Third, the job of a leader without title is to leave a trail of leaders behind them. We're not paid just to be busy and do our work. We're paid to grow leaders at every level around us. Every single person in the organization is responsible for culture and developing people.
Who do you look to and read these days for ideas and inspiration?
The usual icons – the Steve Jobs, Warren Buffet, the Google guys, Fred Smith from FedEx, Tony Hsieh from Zappos, and Jeff Bezos from Amazon. But I also derive even more of my ideation, creativity and inspiration from non-business environments. So I spend a lot of time in art galleries. I spend a lot of time having conversations with people who are eclectic and maybe even a bit eccentric. I got some of my best ideas on leadership walking in art galleries or having conversations with a chef or a taxicab driver. I am always looking for new ideas and new influences.