Learning to Lead: The Journey to Leading Yourself, Leading Others, and Leading an Organization

Learning to Lead: The Journey to Leading Yourself, Leading Others, and Leading an Organization

Learning to Lead: The Journey to Leading Yourself, Leading Others, and Leading an Organization

Learning to Lead: The Journey to Leading Yourself, Leading Others, and Leading an Organization


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This master class on leadership, written by one of America’s most prominent and successful executives, will help you develop the professional leadership qualities that deliver personal, interpersonal, and organizational success. 

​In Learning to Lead: The Journey to Leading Yourself, Leading Others, and Leading an Organization, Ron Williams provides you with practical, tested leadership advice, whether you’re searching for a new career, looking for proven management solutions, or seeking to transform your organization. Developed from Williams’s own personal and professional journey, as well as the experiences of America’s leading CEOs, these strategies emerge boldly from engaging stories, outlined with practical steps for you to accomplish goals such as—

• Launching your career quest
• Avoiding professional pitfalls, wrong turns, and wasted effort
• Overcoming interpersonal challenges and conflicts
• Building and leading an effective, high-performance team
• Prioritizing and solving problems from multiple perspectives
• Developing your leadership style and mastering communication
• Casting a vision and changing the culture of your organization

After finishing Learning to Lead, you will be well equipped to take the next step to success in your personal and professional leadership journey. Williams’s book has the potential to join other leadership development classics on your shelf—to be read repeatedly and consulted throughout the span of your career.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781626346222
Publisher: Greenleaf Book Group Press
Publication date: 05/07/2019
Pages: 322
Sales rank: 364,961
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.30(d)

Read an Excerpt


Find Your Challenge: Launching Your Career Quest

Many successful people have started their careers without a plan or without even a clear objective in mind. If that describes you, here is some advice on how to transform the twists and turns of an unpredictable journey into a satisfying road to achievement.

SOME HAVE CALLED ME the least likely person ever to lead a $34 billion corporation.

I grew up in the 1960s in a working-class family in one of the poorer neighborhoods of Chicago, then one of the most segregated cities in the nation. The cultural, educational, and economic opportunities around me were sparse. But I inherited a strong work ethic from my mom and dad, and I was determined to make something of myself. After graduating from high school, I made my way to Southeast Community College of Chicago, then to Roosevelt University, where I majored in psychology. After a brief stint working in the office of Illinois Governor Richard Ogilvie, I launched a business career — first as a consultant, then as an entrepreneur, and then as an executive at Control Data Corporation, Blue Cross of Califor- nia, and WellPoint Health Networks.

By the time one of America's biggest insurance companies was foundering, I'd established a reputation as a go-to guy — someone with a knack for making things happen in tough situations where others struggled. I was recruited to help turn around Aetna in 2001. After a year as executive vice president, I was named president and a member of the board, and in 2006 I added the titles of CEO and chairman. Aetna had recorded an annual loss of $292 million in 2001. However, by the time I stepped down in 2011 — thanks to a tremendous amount of hard work and creative thinking by thousands of dedicated Aetna employees — that loss had been trans- formed into an annual profit of $1.97 billion, and the company had become one of the most admired in the industry.

As even this brief summary shows, my background and experiences are definitely unusual for the head of a Fortune 100 company. But much more important are the philosophies, methods, and principles that helped me achieve success. I've tried to be both a dedicated student and a successful practitioner of the art of leadership.

I've practiced that approach to life challenges for a long time. At one of my early jobs, I was tested for various traits and discovered that, according to science, I am a strong introvert. At first, I assumed that my introverted personality, combined with the difficulty of crashing through the glass ceiling that keeps many black Americans (and others) from positions of leadership and authority, might rule out business as a viable career for me. But then I found myself fascinated by organizations — what makes them work, how people relate to one another, why some succeed and some fail — and I realized that my different upbringing and background presented an opportunity. The world and its people were a puzzle for me to solve. Despite the fact that I hadn't grown up in the privileged environment of many future CEOs, my inquisitive mind and the search for understanding that it engendered gave me a chance to succeed once I had an opportunity to lead.

Along the way, I learned lessons that have helped me succeed — and that, I suspect, many other people may find valuable.

Here's the first lesson I'd like to emphasize: Growing into leadership begins with self-leadership — which starts with discovering and nurturing the inner drive that will spur you to seemingly impossible achievements. That drive may be moving toward your passion, if you're lucky enough to know it. Or it may be moving rapidly away from what you don't want to do — moving out of the cold and toward the sun.

Most young people find it hard to define a career path that excites and inspires them. It's especially challenging in tough economic times, when the opportunities that beckoned previous generations seem to have disappeared. The temptation is to seek out a well-trodden path in hopes of a comfortable route to success. Unfortunately, this is the road most people follow — and the most crowded trail is never the way to achieve extraordinary success.

The zigzag nature of my own early career demonstrates that there's more than one path to any goal. Fortunately for me, I managed to turn every job I had into a learning experience and a stepping-stone on the route to my greatest challenge. Along the way, I discovered that my unconventional background — including a working-class family and a degree in psychology rather than business or economics — could be turned to my advantage, offering lessons about perseverance, hard work, empathy, and understanding that profoundly enhanced my leadership skills.

I also discovered some other truths about the path to leadership, including a few that you may find surprising. For example, I've learned that the transition from being a follower to a leader doesn't necessarily involve any dramatic transformations or revelations. Looking back on my career, I'm hard-pressed to define any single turning point when I suddenly realized what it takes to be a success. Instead, I experienced a slow, steady growth in knowledge and understanding, fueled by a wide range of work experiences, most of them completely mundane. In the end, I found myself in a quite different place from where I started. But the ascent was so gradual that it never felt shocking or miraculous, but rather quite natural.

I've also learned that having an overwhelming personal passion that guides and shapes your life isn't essential to business success. Some accomplished people know from childhood the kind of work they want to pursue — as physicians, attorneys, high-tech entrepreneurs, movie directors, bankers, or what have you. But many more are like me: interested in a wide array of topics, willing to learn a variety of skills, and ready to try their hands at a number of job assignments. My experience suggests that being flexible can lead to a career that is just as successful, rewarding, and enjoyable as climbing to the pinnacle of a selected field based on a single-minded passion and dedication. Two things are essential: a deep personal commitment to excellence in everything you do and a commitment to continual improvement.

Finally, I would suggest that rising to the top in the world of business doesn't resemble winning a reality TV contest like Shark Tank or The Apprentice. It isn't about being anointed by some higher authority figure who recognizes and rewards your potential. Bosses, mentors, and advocates can be helpful, of course. I worked with a huge variety of bosses over the years, some good and some bad, and I learned useful lessons from all of them. But in the end, no boss or mentor drove my success — although they did open doors for me. My success came about through a combination of hard work, continual learning, fortunate career choices, and a bit of luck — by being in the right place at the right time.


I grew up in the 1950s and '60s on the South Side of Chicago in a community called Englewood. I watched communities going through the phenomenon dubbed "white flight": When families of color would move into a neighborhood, the older white families would begin to move out, fearful that crime and decay would erode their property values and make life unlivable. The departure of stable middle-class families would help make the dire predictions come true, and vast swaths of Chicago — along with other northern cities — experienced significant economic decline during those post- war decades.

As a result, I grew up surrounded by a fair amount of crime, violence, and gang activity. There always seemed to be a handful of crazy guys in the neighborhood everybody worried about — guys who were prone to lashing out if they felt their dignity or power had been challenged. Early in life, I learned one of the basic lessons of life in a danger zone: The best way to stay alive is to try to remain on everybody's good side and pray you never get caught in the crossfire.

Unfortunately, that strategy doesn't always work. One time, a buddy and I were robbed by a kid wielding a .22 pistol. He got all of fifty cents for his trouble. Another time, I went down the wrong street on my way to school and was beaten up by a gang of kids who'd taken it upon themselves to define that street as their turf. By wandering down it I had set myself up to become a victim.

As you can imagine, I made a point of never walking down that street again. But I also vowed that I would try to live my life going forward in such a way that I could gradually make a place for myself in a very different kind of environment — one in which I would be surrounded by good people, positive influences, and life-enhancing experiences.

My parents had been part of the great northern migration of black Americans that played such a transformative role in postwar US history. My mother had come from Oklahoma, while my father's large family had come from Alabama and spread out to several mid-western cities — Detroit, St. Louis, Chicago. When I researched my family history on the Internet, I found that, around the turn of the twentieth century, my maternal grandmother and her parents were listed on the so-called Cherokee Rolls — the official register of people accepted as members of the tribe. Historians say the rolls include both some runaway slaves who became members of the tribe as well as formerly enslaved people who traveled west after emancipation. My ancestors on my father's side, meanwhile, were enslaved people in the Carolinas. They went on to experience the kinds of tough challenges known to millions of other black Americans. Some tilled the land as sharecroppers, while others found work as domestic servants, cooks, factory hands, or railroad laborers.

By the time I came along, my father was working as a parking lot attendant and as a manager/supervisor at parking garages in some of the high-rise buildings along Chicago's Lake Shore Drive. Later, the guys he worked for got into the automated car wash business, and my dad became a manager at one of their facilities. He didn't even have a high school diploma. But he was willing to work hard, to take orders, and to provide the extra effort needed to become a valuable employee. This helped him become a successful supervisor until the business was sold and he was forced to find another line of work.

Dad ended up getting a job as a bus driver at the Chicago Transit Authority. He must have shown some innate leadership abilities because when he got involved in the labor union, he was elected an officer. After that, he only drove the bus around half the time. He spent the rest handling union business — representing workers when they got into trouble with management, arguing on their behalf when they became embroiled in disputes. I like to think his hard work and compassion saved the jobs of more than a handful of his fellow workers.

My mom was a manager in a local beauty shop where she worked three days a week. While I didn't grow up in a home where big business was discussed, hard work was very much on the agenda, and it never occurred to me or my older brother that we would ever do anything but work hard, every day, for as long as we lived.

A strong work ethic wasn't the only valuable thing I inherited from my parents. They also set the example of powerful moral values derived, in their case, from religious faith. We attended a local branch of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, which was founded in 1816 by several black Methodist congregations in the mid-Atlantic states in response to discrimination in the mainstream United Methodist Church. I remain a member of the AME Church to this day, although I'm not a regular attendee at Sunday services. The biggest impact of my religious upbringing has been on my sense of commitment to ethical behavior, which I try to express through my business-related decisions, my participation in volunteer and charitable efforts, and the ways in which I treat those I come into contact with every day.

As for my brother, the two of us had different interests. Whereas I was always an avid reader (especially of science fiction), my brother was more interested in practical pursuits — working, making money, and enjoying life. He ended up moving to Las Vegas, where, like our dad, he got a job as a bus driver. Sadly, he is no longer with us — he died of pancreatic cancer at a young age.

But I loved school, and early on I started being rewarded for my efforts. After scoring high on a standardized exam, I skipped a grade in elementary school and found myself learning advanced subjects in a class with kids who were a year older than me. Then I started going to summer school, where I had the chance to take accelerated classes like biology. I enjoyed it a lot, especially when compared with the only real alternative, which would have been to hang out on the street with the other neighborhood kids. There was no such thing as camp or summer vacation. (To this day, I smile when I hear people talk about their two-week or three-week vacations as a kind of necessity. I still think of those things as a luxury reserved for upper-class people ... not ordinary folk like me.)

In high school, I took advantage of a program that allowed high-scoring students to transfer from their neighborhood school to a better one in a nearby district. I ended up in a high school that had fewer than a hundred black kids among a thousand white kids. (The Chicago public schools had been legally desegregated only a couple of years earlier, in 1964.) I continued to enjoy my classes and do well in them, but it was pretty obvious that there was a difference in the way the black students were treated. There were only a handful of teachers who behaved as if they cared, including the two black teachers — a history instructor and a physical education teacher. But most of the faculty seemed utterly indifferent. No one ever talked to me about going to college; the help of the guidance counselors was reserved for the white students. So I learned to find my own path, making mistakes along the way — a pattern that would continue throughout my life.

Meanwhile, the habit of working at a job had already become a regular part of my life. I never played sports or participated in clubs in high school. I used my spare time to earn money — for clothes and for anything else I might need beyond the basics of life, which my mom and dad provided. (It never occurred to me that I might be entitled to an allowance or to spending money from my parents.) When classes ended at two or three in the afternoon, I'd take the bus to my dad's car wash/gas station and put in three hours or so pump- ing gas and washing cars. On weekends, I did the same thing all day Saturday and half a day on Sunday.

I worked with an interesting group of guys — grown men who didn't have much of a future beyond pumping gas. They used their paychecks not for discretionary things but to support themselves and their families — or, in some cases, to support their bad habits. I remember one guy who would get paid every Friday, go out drinking and partying, and pick up ladies in the neighborhood. By the time he came back to work on Sunday morning, he would need to borrow a couple of bucks from me to buy lunch.

Looking back, the single most important thing I learned from that first job is what I didn't want to do with my life. My specialty was cleaning the inside rear windows of cars. On a busy day, we would wash six or seven hundred cars, and I helped wash about half of them. Now remember that this was Chicago, which means that on a winter day it might be twenty degrees below zero — and when you wash cars, you spend the entire day sopping wet. You soon realize, as a fifteen-year-old, that this is not the kind of work you want to do for the next fifty years.

Working alongside my dad gave me a useful measuring stick for calibrating the problems that my colleagues and I had to deal with in the business world. Whenever I was tempted to complain about a particularly thorny management challenge, I would pause and remind myself: I'm being paid a nice wage. I'm indoors. It's warm. It's dry. What the heck is there to complain about?

For many years after launching my business career, I often thought back to my time in the car wash, but it eventually faded into a distant memory. Just a couple of years ago, however, I experienced a vivid flashback.

My business success has given me a degree of financial security I never imagined as a youngster. It has enabled me to do many good things for my family and my community, for which I'm very grateful. And although I'm not terribly concerned about the accoutrements of wealth, I do have a weakness for beautiful cars. So after retiring from my role as CEO of Aetna, I got a big kick out of being able to buy the kind of car I dreamed about as a kid — a beautiful sports car with a powerful engine. It was a pleasure to drive.


Excerpted from "Learning to Lead"
by .
Copyright © 2019 RW2 Enterprises, LLC.
Excerpted by permission of Greenleaf Book Group Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Introduction 1

Part 1 Leading Yourself 9

1 Find Your Challenge: Launching Your Career Quest 11

2 Redefine What's Possible: The Art of Refraining 33

3 Start with Minor Miracles: The Tougher the Challenge, the Bigger the Opportunity 47

4 Make Your Enemies Disappear: Assume Positive Intent 73

Part 2 Leading Others 85

5 "It Can't Be Done": Meeting the Toughest Leadership Challenge 87

6 When All Else Fails, Get the Facts: Solving Problems in the Real World 109

7 Changing the Problem Changes the Solution: Reframing for Business Leaders 127

8 The Search for Truth: Asking Questions That Open Minds 139

9 Define What's Really Important-Then Make It Happen 155

10 Winning the Talent Hunt: How to Build Your Team 175

11 Master the Art of Mind Reading: The Two-Up/Two- Down System 199

12 Find the Magic Words: Discovering Your Authentic Leadership Voice 219

Part 3 Leading An Organization 229

13 What Only the CEO Can Do: Creating a Positive Company Culture 231

14 The Leader's Vision: From Today's Reality to an Inspiring Future 259

15 Making Connections: Communication as a Team Sport 273

16 Shaking Up an Industry: The Health-Care Reform Challenge 291

Epilogue: Keep Breaking Barriers 303

Acknowledgments 311

Index 313

About the Authors 323

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