Episode 383: Time to Lead with JB Steenkamp

Episode Summary

Throughout our conversation, JB shares his thoughts on leadership styles, the importance of recognizing which one is ours, and how to evolve from one to another and become better leaders. We also discuss JB’s self-assessment tool and the historical figures like Nelson Mandela that inspired JB’s research and motivated him to write “Time To Lead.”

Rob Shallenberger: Welcome back to our Becoming Your Best podcast, listeners. This is your host, Rob Shallenberger. Grateful that you made time to join us today. And although I don’t know our guest personally today, he was referred to me by a close friend. And the more I learned about him, the more amazing he seems to become. So I’m excited to visit with him today. This, like you, will be for most of us the first time that we’ve ever talked with him, and his name is JB. And he asked me, “Do you want to use my English version of the last name or the German?” and I said, “Let’s go with English.” So the English pronunciation of his last name is Steenkamp, JB Steenkamp. And he is a professor at the University of North Carolina. He wrote a book called Time to Lead: Lessons for Today’s Leaders. And the person who referred me to him said, “Hey, you’ve got to check out JB.” Had the highest praises to sing about him. So, JB, before we jump in and start talking about leadership and how that applies to each one of us, give us the 30-second-to-a-minute background version of you so that we know who you are and can put this in context. 

JB Steenkamp: Thank you very much, Rob, for inviting me to the show. As you can hear from my accent, I wasn’t born in an English-speaking country. I was born in the Netherlands, in Amsterdam. I worked in Belgium and the Netherlands. And I also taught at universities in Europe, South Africa, and other places before coming to the US in 2006, where I am the C. Knox Massey Distinguished Professor at the Kenan-Flagler Business School. For the South African audience, the pronunciation would be something like “Stee-encamp”, but I’ve never gotten the really Afrikaans version completely well. 

Rob Shallenberger: Awesome. Well, let’s talk leadership here today. So as we get into this, JB, I want to remind everybody that’s listening to this that leadership is far more than a title. In other words, leadership is something that lies within each one of us. And leadership starts both in our personal lives and then expands out to the people around us. That could include family, friends, certainly in an organization. But as we talk “leader”, I’m going to remind us all that we’re all leaders because leadership starts with leading our own lives. Then it expands out to our friends and family and then to the people around us. It’s far more than just a title. And so I’m excited to hear your perspective on leadership. And I asked you for a few questions that you might resonate with. One of them is this that you sent me: Is there one type of leadership style that’s best, and if so, should people try to become that? Or is there not? And what’s your perspective on that, JB? 

JB Steenkamp: Gurus would claim that there is one leadership style that is best. And that, quite surprisingly, is the leadership style that they have come up with or espouse. That is simply not true. There are many different leadership styles that can be successful. In my book, I outlined seven major leadership styles, and you can be successful in each of these leadership styles. It is important, as General Holt writes in the foreword to the book, to be faithful to your specific leadership style and make the best of it. So for example, there are some people that are naturally more directive, other people tend to be more servant leaders, putting other people first. You can be very successful in either of the two ways. But you can also really screw it up in either of the two ways. So you can be directive, but making it so strong that you become dictatorial. You can be servant, but you can be so weak that you are a doormat. So it has to do with, “Okay, what fits with your personality and with your values?” and improve upon that. So the good news is here you don’t have to become somebody and something that you are not. You just have to improve the kind of leader that you are. 

Rob Shallenberger: I think anybody that’s making this personal to them can relate to that. Take our children, for example. For anybody listening that has more than one child, we know that different leadership styles will resonate with different children. Likewise in the workplace, there are different leadership styles that are going to work in certain circumstances versus other circumstances. And while there are certain principles that predict success, leadership styles are slightly different than that. So I want to jump to another question because you wrote a book focused on leadership. And you distinguish between four animal metaphors, and I’m curious to hear what you mean by this. And if I understood this correctly, your four metaphors are eagles, hedgehogs, foxes, and ostriches. So I want to jump right into that and what’s that all about? How does that apply to us? 

JB Steenkamp: So what we are dealing with are two fundamental questions for effective leadership. And that is: Do I have clarity about where I want the team, the organization, the country, or my family to go? That has to do with the vision, that is the end. What do I really want to achieve in my life, or in my organization? That is one element. The second element is: Do I have a really deep understanding of how to get there? Now, eagles know where they want to go and they know how to get there. They are flexible because there are going to be always roadblocks. They’re flexible in the way to get there, but they have a clear end goal. Dr. Martin Luther King was a great eagle because he had a very clear goal in his life, as many of us are well aware of. But when you look at his life, he was very flexible in the way how to get there. 

JB Steenkamp: Now, foxes are tactically very strong, but they don’t really know where they are going. But they are very strong along the way. President Clinton or German Chancellor Merkel, they were foxes. They did not really have a grand vision that animated America or Germany, but they were tactically strong how to each day essentially get a little bit further down the road.  

JB Steenkamp: Hedgehogs are the opposite to foxes. They have a vision, they really know where they want to go. They are not as strong in terms of the day-to-day tactics; they may either not care about it that much or they may be somewhat inflexible. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had many hedgehog qualities. She was somewhat flexible, but actually, she was really focused on where she wanted to go. And President Reagan actually, had a couple of things that he wanted to achieve; he wasn’t really much interested in all the details of doing that successfully.  

JB Steenkamp: The final one is people that don’t have a clear vision of where they want to go, and they don’t really understand the tools and the means how to get there. President George Bush W was an ostrich; he was a failure in about every dimension, everything that he started. He didn’t have a clear vision when it came to the war in Iraq, for example. He didn’t have a good vision of America’s strength and there was no end goal. British Prime Minister Theresa May is another example in that she came to power after Brexit, it was unclear what she really wanted to achieve in her premiership, and she also did not play out well the cards that she had. So as you can see, ostriches are almost invariably associated with failure. But you can have eagles, foxes, hedgehogs that are successful. 

JB Steenkamp: So what kind of leader you yourself are? I have an online measurement instrument, a quiz, that’s on my website You can go there, and you can assess for yourself as long as you do it honestly as opposed to what you would like to be. I would like to look like Brad Pitt; it’s not going to happen. So the thing is, be realistic with yourself. And the test has now been taken by thousands of people. And I provide indications based on your responses, ”Okay. Where would you want to go to look into this a little bit deeper?” And that has proven very successful in my teaching and in other ways to help people essentially assess, “Okay. Where am I now?” And the earlier you do it in your life, the more you can actually change it if you want to be something else.  

Rob Shallenberger: Okay. So first of all, if someone wants to take an assessment to figure out which one or which category they fall into, they go to your website, right? 

JB Steenkamp: Correct. 

Rob Shallenberger: So just to clarify the spelling for those listening: It’s JB, and then “Steenkamp” is S-T-E-E-N-K-A-M-P. So, And we can take the assessment there to identify which one we are. 

JB Steenkamp: Yes. 

Rob Shallenberger: Now, leadership. It’s interesting because there’s all these assessments. There’s DiSC, there’s Colors, all these different assessments for leadership. And what I’ve found through the years is that we may have a default. I may default to an ostrich or a fox or a hedgehog, whatever. Or on the DiSC assessment, I may default towards a “D”. But that doesn’t mean that we’re locked in and we can’t do anything about it. In other words, leadership is evolving and we grow and we develop. We can be aware of our strengths, we can be aware of our areas of improvement, our defaults. But then that puts us in a position to do something about it. So if we know that we have a certain tendency towards doing something, either we can build a team around us to support and strengthen those, or being aware of them allows us to do something about it. So what do you suggest or what is the approach that you take when someone says, “Okay, great. I’m an eagle. Now what?”  

JB Steenkamp: Well, actually, then you are in good shape. So let me give you an example of a brilliant former MBA student of mine. She did the test. She was an ostrich, and she was not very happy. So she did it again, and again she was an ostrich. And she did it the third time, and again she turned out to be an ostrich. Then she kind of accepted it, and then she said, “Okay.” So I had some recommendations then, where to go, and she said, “I have never really thought about what I wanted to get out of my life. What are my goals?” And especially she was not talking about career goals but also family goals. And then she thought strategically, “Okay. What do I want to achieve in the next 10 years, perhaps a little earlier even than that? And what kind of things should I now be doing to achieve that?” And she told me she implemented that. So she did the test. Then she did some thinking, she re-read some of the chapters of my book – she was very captivated by them, especially by the chapter on Florence Nightingale; it resonated with her, she was in healthcare – and then she implemented it. And actually, within a year, she had changed her career very much. And she changed from one stream to another stream and had been very successful. The point was after doing the test, it forced her to think really about “What do I want to achieve in my life?”.  

JB Steenkamp: When we get, for example, new clients, one of the first questions I have “Okay, what do you want to achieve? What are your goals in your professional life?” Most people have no idea. Well, that’s sad. When I was 23, I essentially determined what are the goals in my life, and then I reasoned, “Okay, what are the steps how to do that?” And that just made it much more effective, and then these goals can expand over time. And these are things that everybody can do. But it helps to then look at other examples of people. And what I then do on the test is that when you do the test, essentially, ”Okay, if you’re this or that, and you want essentially to go into goal setting, or you want to improve flexibility means or something, all dependent on where you work, look at this life of this particular person, or that particular person because he or she had the same problem that you had, and he or she tackled it. And then see what can you learn, because we learn mostly by observing others. That is, by observing our parents or by reading about others. That is often how we learn as opposed to dry theory. You learn by seeing people of flesh and blood in action.  

Rob Shallenberger: Yeah. JB, I’m a huge advocate of assessments like this. I know that you may not be familiar with what we’ve done, but our listeners certainly are. And we have these 12 principles of highly successful leaders that great leaders focus on. They’re very predictive of success. Principle number 10 is to apply the power of knowledge. In other words, as we look through history, great leaders have a hunger and a thirst for knowledge. Because we all have blind spots. Universally, across the board, we all have areas that we can improve and focus on and develop. And so once we identify, “Okay, my tendency might be a hedgehog tendency, or eagle or ostrich,” whatever, like your MBA student, that puts us in a position of power because then we can do something about it. In other words, okay, great. Your MBA student, “I’m an ostrich, I’ve taken the test three times.” so that’s not good or bad. It just means that there are certain things that I’m going to gravitate towards and certain things that are not going to be my strengths. And then to your point. We can look at other people through history – that may have been an ostrich in her case – and what have they been able to do? And so it puts us really in a powerful position to move forward. And it’s all based on awareness. “Okay, great, I’m a fox. What does that mean? What can I do about that? How can I leverage the strengths of a fox? And how can I offset the areas of improvement by focusing on these other areas? Let’s touch on maybe one or two of your other questions building on that. I hope people will go to your website and take that assessment. It’s just awareness, it gives us one more view of our own selves and our areas of strengths or opportunities for improvement. 

JB Steenkamp: It’s exactly that. If you don’t know what you are, if you do no kind of self-assessment in one way or another, then you’re going to be less effective. It is indeed knowledge and self-knowledge is important then. As Machiavelli said in his famous book The Prince, of greater value to him than all his worldly possessions, is — I’m quoting now – “ the knowledge of the actions of great men.” And that’s exactly your point. And that’s what Machiavelli already wrote 500 years ago, and it is still as relevant. President Truman, very successful, said, “Whenever I am having some kind of leadership challenge with all the people, I turn to Plutarch” – Plutarch’s Parallel: Lives, written 1-200 AD – “because there I always find an answer to my present problem.” 

Rob Shallenberger: And to your point, JB, talk about the value of looking at historical figures. Because likewise, to go back to our 12 principles, that’s exactly what we’ve done. We’ve looked through history at great leaders to say, “What are the principles and habits they focused on to be among the best?” So I’m a huge advocate, like you, of looking at history and precedent of what predicts success. Or what have certain people done that has worked really well, and can we repeat that? So what have you found – because I know that you’ve done the same thing – what have you found as you’ve looked through history at these different historical figures? What have been some of your observations? 

JB Steenkamp: You’re absolutely right. We teach often case studies, and case studies are, essentially, you learn by analogy. And what I found in the book in which we are looking at 17 great historical leaders and their leadership and their decisions is that it is not related to gender. It is also not related to intelligence, education, or even sociability. It doesn’t mean that some of those can’t help. But there is one thing that I found across thousands of years, across these 17 people, male and female, black and white — I find they all have grit. So grit seems to be absolutely necessary, indispensable for success. It is that you have to have self-confidence; you also need to have motivation to succeed; and then thirdly, and the most difficult thing for most of us, resilience. That is the ability to overcome disappointments, setbacks, even outright failures, and continue. And that is something that all these people have. Because we will all have failures in our lives, and if you cannot overcome that, that is something hard. I teach a course, Leadership Lessons from History, across all MBA programs here at UNC, and the students also do a grid test that is in my book. And the one element on which, actually, about two-thirds of the people fall short, that’s on resilience. And this is an “A” select group because MBA students already are a specific group in terms of selection. But resilience is something that is very difficult. And often, it helps. You can build resilience. But you can also be encouraged by seeing how other people have overcome great disappointments and hardships and gone on. From Nelson Mandela in South Africa to FDR in the US etc. They’ve all had great disappointments and they overcame them.  

Rob Shallenberger: JB, I love what you’re saying right there. And anybody that’s listening to this, think about your own lives. Where has grit been required? We’ve all experienced challenges, and what happens when we face those challenges? We overcome them. We have this dogged determination. I love Nelson Mandela’s example, JB. Think about this, if you’re listening to this, and you put yourself in Nelson Mandela’s shoes. He spends nearly 30 years, three decades almost, in this isolated prison. How would most people respond in his situation? And if you’re listening and thinking about this, to JB’s point, most people would check out, give up, whatever the case might be. Nelson Mandela, on the other hand, he was preparing. He used those nearly three decades as a tutoring, as a mentoring, as a growing experience. And he had that mindset the entire time. That’s grit. I love it, JB. That’s grit. It’s overcoming adversity rather than just capitulating. 

JB Steenkamp: And, Rob, the thing is also Nelson Mandela was a person of flesh and blood. So it is we can be inspired by them because, obviously, Nelson Mandela was a great man, but he wasn’t infallible. Just like all of us are not infallible. I think my challenge to the audience, and to myself, is if Mandela can do it, if FDR can do it, if others can do it, what necessarily determines that we cannot do it as well? I don’t think that we can say we cannot do it as well. We can. 

Rob Shallenberger: And I know there are people listening to this today, they’re going through challenges that may feel like you’re alone. There are some people that are probably going through things where you’re like, “No one else can relate to this. This is my suffering or journey that I’m walking alone.” And while it’s true that it’s your journey, there are other people that have experienced similar hardships and challenges. And I love, JB, the approach that you’re taking there is, “Wait a second. Number one: we’re not alone. Number two: we can be inspired from these people in history who, even though they’re flesh and blood, they’re not perfect, they’re not infallible, they likewise have overcome sometimes extreme adversity and challenges and yet come out such different people on the other side. So, JB, I can’t believe our time is already up. I want to finish with two things here. Number one: if you had one tip or recommendation for our listeners, what would that be? And then number two: could you share again the name of your book and how people can get that? So let’s start with your tip or recommendation and then how they could find your book and order your book. 

JB Steenkamp: My tip of recommendation is leadership is not innate, but it is learned. And you can improve your leadership abilities, regardless of whether you are the CEO of a company or you are at home and managing your family or you are a pastor or at an NGO, you can improve your leadership abilities. But stay true to yourself — and this is not some kind of soft wishy-washy thing — it’s that people will notice if you are an inauthentic guy, if you are essentially doing things that you are not really the way you are. But within the boundaries, strive to improve. And start today rather than tomorrow because it is a gradual process. And about the book. So the full title is Time to Lead: Lessons for Today’s Leaders from Bold Decisions that Changed History. Amazon is the easiest place; you can get the hard copy version or the Kindle version. I think personally the hard copy version is more appealing just because I’ve heard that from my students that they love to have the hard copy. But that’s up to you. 

Rob Shallenberger: And is there an audiobook version of that, JB?  

JB Steenkamp: No, there’s not.  

Rob Shallenberger: Alright. Still coming in the future, the audio version. Right? 

JB Steenkamp: They contacted me about it, yes. 

Rob Shallenberger: So either Kindle or the hardcover book. Probably the best place is Amazon. And so I would encourage people to get that. The book is called Time to Lead, by JB Steenkamp. And again, just to remind us all, you can take the assessment that he’s offering, find out what your leadership style is, at JB Steenkamp S-T-E-E-N-K-A-M-P .com. So You can take the assessment, see what your leadership go-to is or your style, and then read the book and do something about it. I’m committing to read the book, I’m excited to read it. I love this kind of stuff. So, JB, it has been an honor having you here today. Thanks for your leadership. Thanks for the things that you’re doing at the University of North Carolina and for sharing some of your experiences and research with others around the world. We’re all in this together. We’re trying to make this world a better place, right? It starts in our homes, it starts with ourselves, and then it expands out from there. So thank you for all you’re doing. And to all of our listeners, thank you for what you’re doing. Whether you’re listening to this in your car, in your home, at work, your leadership has an impact. There are certain people who you will be able to reach and connect with, and every one of us can make a difference in making this world a better place. So thank you for being here. Hope you have a great day and rest of your week and we’ll see you back here next week.  

Rob Shallenberger

CEO, Becoming Your Best

Leading authority on leadership and execution, F-16 Fighter Pilot, and father

Jan-Benedict Steenkamp

Founder and Executive Chairman at AiMark

Keynote Speaker, Author, Founder and Executive Chairman at AiMark

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