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Messages that are mired in the mix of an economic downturn have a way of being overlooked and their meaning is lost in the hubbub and hoopla of distressed and strained voices all vying to be heard. While the noise of current events shrills from cabin to canyon, tugging both home and heart, the image being viewed from inside the tornado is not of the wicked witch, but the merging pieces of a leadership model that speaks to the NOW and to the FUTURE. Interestingly enough, the business leadership model needed is being actively demonstrated in world of sports and emulated in the political arena. As the Pittsburg Steelers organization celebrates its sixth Lombardi Trophy in seven appearances at the Super Bowl, it is clear that there is something known about winning and success that is not apparent to other competitors and which cannot be attributed to dumb luck.

Since 1969, the Steelers organization has applied a ‘youthful experience’ model in picking the 3 coaches who have been instrumental in bringing about Super Bowl victories. While many would have shuddered at the prospect of choosing the 37 year old Chuck Noll, the 35 year old Bill Cowher or the 34 year old Mike Tomlin to lead an established franchise to record setting performances in the ultimate game, apparently this organization believed that youth, and moderate experience are elements in a successful leadership model. There had to be a meeting of minds in which the owner and the new coach shared a winning philosophy that was not restrained by history or tradition. Lack of long-term experience across a variety of coaching experiences was not seen as a deterrent to organizational success, but embraced as a journey in which unwavering support would be the catalyst for long-term success. When the triumvirate of youth, moderate experience and disciplined mindset is placed in a setting that seeks to establish a higher standard of success, all that remains is the support needed to bring everyone on board.

The message is clear! Standing on tradition has its place but not when the ground in which it is anchored is sinking and there is no low hanging vine to grab before being smothered by the mud. There is a lifeline surrounded by youthful activity and enthusiastic willingness to become more than just sideline players waiting for their chance to serve. The long, plodding, patient climb to top leadership represented a time of economic dominance through major industrial growth and control over mass markets. Insisting that someone ‘wait until it is your turn’ meant that leadership opportunities would be few and far between in your lifetime. It was important to amass an abundance of experience and to maintain the traditional thinking that was the heart and soul of the organization. It was a model that was long preservation and short on innovation. The reward came from how well you did what was already being done.

Young talent must be seen and heard. There is an uplifting voice that is the naïveté of youth tempered by the impatience of the long climb. Rather than disengage their leadership development programs, now is the time for all well-meaning organizations to position their young talent at the decision-making table. It is not a question of asking them to grow up to fast, but an issue of having them move to slow. The real history of leadership is not rooted in a particular age or a certain set of experiences. Much of the history is linked to an individual who happen to think somewhat different from the crowd and had the audacity to believe that it could work.

It is too easy to fall into the trap of thinking that someone has ‘only been a shop manager, or a project coordinator, or a community activist’, thus they are not ready to lead. A shift in mindset about where to find leadership talent will determine which organizations consistently find themselves setting the benchmark for success or consistently chasing that elusive standard. While many will point to our failed financial institutions as models for how NOT to lead, it is also important to point to the Steelers organization as a model for how TO lead. They have the experience!

© 2013 Lee E. Meadows
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