Real World Leadership

By Paula Fox posted 08-24-2020 16:22


Real World Leadership 
responsive image

I recently discovered that I own ninety percent of the 25 best leadership books of all time. But that shouldn’t surprise me, as I developed a passion for leadership in college, and I have been chasing down "the keys to successful leadership" ever since.

And considering the vast number of books written on the subject of leadership, I naively entered the workforce expecting to be greeted by managers emulating the likes of Herb Kelleher or Alan Mulally.


I quickly realized that my expectations didn’t align with my reality.

responsive image
After graduation, I joined a large private label food manufacturer as an HR generalist. And during new hire orientation, they advised us that we were not allowed, under any circumstances, to use the microwave to cook popcorn.

That was it. They provided no further explanation.

(Of course, we all made a mental note to dig deeper into the forbidden popcorn rule.)

A few years later, someone forgot the popcorn rule (or maybe he was in the bathroom during that part of orientation). So I witnessed our president lose his mind because he hated the aroma of microwave popcorn!

Apparently, our president failed to read "The Extraordinary Leader" by John H. Zenger and Joseph R. Folkman, or he would have known that personal character is at the core of all leadership effectiveness.

I wish I could say that Mr. Popcorn was an outlier. He wasn't.

Don’t get me wrong, I have had the opportunity to work with a few good leaders over the past twenty years.

But I have far more examples of incompetent leaders who lacked self-awareness and could not garner respect because of their inability to connect on a human level.

For example, I worked for a high-level operations leader (I will call him “Dave”) who had a major storm brewing between two of his managers. These two individuals managed closely linked departments, but unresolved conflicts between them resulted in a breakdown in cooperation between the two departments. Subsequently, employees in each of the two departments felt a need to side with their manager, so a toxic cancer started to grow that threatened our collaborative, respectful culture.

After meeting with the key players to understand the root cause of the discord, I presented my recommendations to Dave. Ultimately, he needed to resolve some underlying systemic issues. But more importantly, Dave needed to schedule weekly coaching sessions for each one of his managers.

Days passed with no action.

I stopped by with a friendly reminder for Dave.

Weeks passed, and I sent follow up emails to Dave, noting the importance of his role in resolving this conflict.




Apparently, Dave failed to read John C. Maxwell’s “The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership”, or he would have understood the importance of cultivating his inner circle.

So where is the disconnect? If a mountain of research exists on the topic of effective leadership, why are individuals passing up the opportunity to gain knowledge and improve their leadership skills?


Based on my observations as an HR professional, I believe it comes down to two simple truths.

1. Inept leaders tend to have low social awareness and low self-awareness.

2. Corporate culture in America continues to reward and promote individuals based on their technical competencies versus their leadership competencies. Therefore, these individuals find no compelling reason to change or improve. They simply subscribe to the old adage, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”


Early on in my career, I tried to convince these leaders that something was broken, and I urged them to fix it. I even tried to change the system that rewarded the wrong behaviors and promoted the wrong individuals.

I failed miserably.

But my failures helped me to better understand the type of leaders I want to work with and the company cultures that foster the right behaviors. I also developed the ability (and the courage) to ask the right questions of prospective employers. Most importantly, I do my homework to find examples of how those employers live out their values.

In the end, I learned that I can’t change individuals who are not motivated to change. Additionally, I can’t change deeply entrenched corporate cultures that encourage the wrong behaviors.

But I can be relentless in my pursuit of finding an organization that follows Robert P. Neushel’s advice in “The Servant Leader” that the “fundamental traits of personality and depth of character are more vital than intelligence in a leader.”


This article originally appeared on Medium.

Paula Fox is a human resources professional with 20+ years of leadership experience. She’s a BGS member and a creative writer with a passion for leadership and a desire to make the world a better place.

Follow BGS:




03-19-2021 14:59

I like what I am hearing about the Servant Leader and need to learn more.  I have my summer reading list planned with this new addition.

01-06-2021 18:39

Consider these "School Subjects" some additional LEARNING ... in a process we continue to work our way(s) through....   

Read "The Teacher" (within) and be wise enough to realize that Mr. Adams SHOULD have said he/SHE can never tell where his/HER influence stops.

01-06-2021 12:38

This is so true. I am currently reading 2 books: Anticipate by Rob-Jan De Jong and Maxwell's 5 Levels of Leadership. And I too am amazed at the vast variety of books that seem to not be influencing management promotions.
I am finding that titles are what hiring managers want, not necessarily experience that is applicable and expresses leadership in the accomplishments. I have 22 years in healthcare and recently earned my MBA in admin yet am not getting past the AI and HR screens, well at least to the amount I thought I would be. And trying to get noticed and express that titles don't make the leader better, is rough and a challenge.
Thank you for posting this, I feel a bit validated.

09-08-2020 19:02

Hi Paula, 

Here is a small subset of the "leaders" I attached myself to over many years.

And, when I say subset, I mean there are thousands I've studied/stored/pushed into tools like this ... to fix some of the people I've worked with. 

Again, not always successfully at first ... but, you'd be amazed at how many come back (years later) and finally "get it" .... 

Hope this helps.