Lead Like Bruce Lee

Originally published May 9, 2017 by The Montrose Daily Press

Though he enjoyed Kung-fu fighting, acting, and being an all-around super star, Bruce Lee was also quite the philosopher. He died as a young man, but left a lasting legacy in the words he spoke: “Adapt what is useful, reject what is useless, and add what is specifically your own.”  

Even though he may have been referring to his next fight with Chuck Norris, Lee’s advice seemingly transcends into any form of self-betterment. And through self-betterment, leadership has no choice but emergence.

Leadership. Advice, classes, seminars, quotes, books, blogs posts, and lame T-shirts flood our newsfeeds. Each making compelling claims as the gospel on said topic. These morsels of inspiration are worthy of our time and certainly keep the leadership vessel turned in the right direction. Yet somewhere along the way of reading the next great book or attending a conference, we have a tendency toward wandering attention and diminishing action.

The fundamental difference between a leader and a manager has long been established. While management is a great class to take in college, leadership is what’s written on headstones.

Leadership is stylistic and individualized. It can be taught to some extent, but is often best experienced and developed through life long practice.  

Many of us have been blessed by working with exceptional leaders throughout our career and lives. It is very easy to “hero-ize” someone and strive to be exactly like them when we “grow up” (in our career). However, it can be an overwhelming task emulating those leaders and achieving the standards they create. In case you like skipping ahead to the end of a story: none of us are going to turn out just like our hero. Regardless, we can still adapt what is useful in their leadership style and behavior.

Conversely, we’ve all had a horrible boss. These experiences develop severe allergic reactions within us against certain behaviors, cultures, and workplace politics.

Over time, this extreme focus against poor leadership is an excellent tool in developing personal leadership style. Instead of focusing on the injustice of working for a jerk, try using that experience as an opportunity for shaping your own leadership skills. Reject what is useless, but don’t forget the lesson.

I heard someone say he only spends money on things that will eliminate a problem in his life. I found this an interesting perspective and possible loophole into happiness.

We could apply this to leadership development in that we are only going to focus on creating things that eliminate a problem in the workplace.

For instance, it would be easy to say you’d like to be the type of leader who makes their team happy on a consistent basis. So you bring in coffee and doughnuts every Monday, give your team two paid hours a week at the gym, and make sure they all get a 3 percent raise each year. Yet they still seem unhappy.

What if instead you started by listening? Then by getting creative. Perhaps Jenny from production consistently has a scheduling conflict on Wednesdays because her children get out of school early. How might you “lead from behind” by offering to learn Jenny’s position and cover her workstation while she briefly runs her children home? Conversely, maybe Roy needs a little more time off than Jenny because he has to take his wife to Denver once a month for treatment. How about eliminating Roy’s need for extra PTO by creatively formulating a work schedule that revolves around production rather than hours worked? 

Challenge: Set forth a blank canvas and add a splash of the best leader you’ve ever had. Sketch in the skills learned from working under the worst boss imaginable. Dabble with ideas from books, movies, podcasts, articles, and stories from leaders of all walks.

Now paint your own masterpiece with the framework you’ve established. Great leaders are born at the intersection of learned behavior and stylistic expression.

Remember it (leadership) doesn’t happen by osmosis. And it doesn’t fit inside a neat little box. We can and should get a little bloody in the battle (like Bruce). Stop being afraid to break the rules. Be okay with dirty hands. Try new things. Be okay with failure. Be okay with admitting that failure. Be OK with starting again. Trying another new thing. Fail. Start again.

Your leadership should never look exactly like someone else’s (especially not your horrible boss’). Trust your own craft enough that it is freely particular to you and your situation. Add what is specifically your own.

Chelsea Rosty is the executive director of the Montrose Chamber of Commerce and director of Business Innovation for the City of Montrose. Reach her at chelsea@montrosechamber.com.