A Lesson on Leadership from Former Vice President Joe Biden

If you’ve read my book, heard me speak or have stood beside me for longer than ten minutes, then you know that I am all about personal development. Growing is my thing… and clearly not longitudinally, as I’m 5’3 on a good hair day. I attribute all of my success to my commitment to personal growth. The more I invest in myself, the more return I yield in both my personal and professional endeavours. So, as you can imagine, when I was approached by The Art Of to attend their conference about leadership, I was elated. Not only are conferences to me what concerts are to music buffs, leadership is a topic I’m particularly interested in. If that wasn’t incentive enough, when I saw that Bloomberg TV Canada anchor Amanda Lang, business strategist Vince Molinaro and the 47th Vice-President of the United States, Joe Biden, were on the panel, I knew I was in for a real treat.

The conference was impressive from the moment it began. Everyone was personally greeted as they got off of the elevator by a very pleasant man. There was a leadership contract at every seat, which really set the tone for the day ahead, and the timing of the event was impeccable. Every presentation started and stopped as the itinerary suggested and every break was respected. As it turned out, the pleasant man who welcomed everyone was Bill Williams, Partner and Vice President of Learning at The Art Of. The personalization and adherence to the schedule spoke to the professionalism of the coordinators, speakers and guests.

I’m of the mindset that knowledge is only power when it’s put to use, and for me, part of putting it to use is getting it out of my head and into the world. Not only does writing it out help me to internalize what I’ve learned and put it in the context of my life, seeing it inspires me to take action. Some of what the speakers shared was new information and offered a unique perspective that I hadn’t considered, and other information had been heard before but not quite absorbed. That’s one of the many things I love about these types of events. You can be told something your whole life but not have it really sink in, but there are moments where timing, life circumstance and the delivery of the message aligns and has such a profound impact.

Having come from a corporate background, I’m conditioned to think about ROI (return on investment). As an entrepreneur with very little overhead costs but a business that takes up a significant amount of time to run, I’ve shifted my mindset to ROTI (return on time invested) when my attention is taken away from clients and put into initiatives like this one. My hours are non-renewable, so it’s important to make sure that my time is well spent. Taking time to reflect always helps to surface additional value. My key takeaways from The Art of Leadership are proving to be fundamental as I plan for the year ahead. My hope is that by sharing this knowledge, they can be just as useful to you.

1. The only thing you need to be a leader is a follower.

Some people work tirelessly to be the best leader they can be. Some people are put in leadership roles because of tenure or strong technical expertise and embrace it but are given no formal training and have little desire to ask for it. And then there are those who really aren’t cut out for the job but are somehow leading projects, departments and companies. No matter which category you fall into, whether you love it, asked for it, are ready for it or not, if there is just one person relying on you for guidance, you are a leader.

When people are asked to think about what makes a good leader, words like problem solver, good communicator, articulates the vision, empathetic, passionate, humble and integrity often come to mind. The essential qualities of a good leader will vary from one person to the next but they all boil down to the same thing: emotional intelligence, also known as emotional quotient (EQ). If you’re in a position of leadership and have not proactively worked at enhancing your EQ, you are doing your company a great disservice. Fortunately, a little effort goes a long way. As Vince Molinaro put it, “The true measure of the success of any leader is leaving things better than you found it.” I was delighted to find the topic of emotional intelligence at the core of the conference and was equally delighted to see a gender-balanced lineup of speakers. It’s refreshing to see respected men in business making room for emotion in the workplace, and the shift in leadership practices as a whole. Of all the information the speakers shared, this is what stuck with me most.

Learn more about how you can increase your emotional intelligence in my book, Bossing Up.

2. We are becoming more self absorbed and less self aware.

Researchers have shown that society is shifting toward individualism, as opposed to collectivism. However, I don’t think you need to read a thesis to figure that out. Dictionaries define self-absorption as “preoccupied with oneself or one’s own affairs.” This alone doesn’t seem entirely problematic to me. I think it’s important to put yourself first and prioritize what makes you happy. Unfortunately the definition doesn’t end there. Being self-absorbed is further defined as “excluding others or the outside world.” That’s where the problem is. We cannot be self-aware in isolation. Character is built on 1000 little things and cumulative experiences that makes people who they are. Listening to other people’s opinions (even if you do not agree), being open to new ideas and welcoming opportunity is what will contribute to your conscious knowledge of your character and beliefs.

Dr. Tasha Eurich did a study that proved we are not as self-aware as we think we are. While over eighty percent of people claimed to be self-aware, a shocking ten percent actually are. Are you as self-aware as you think (or hope) you are? Take Eurich’s insight quiz to find out.

3. Asking the right question is essential to getting the right answer.

Amanda Lang, author of The Power of Why, delivered a powerful speech about curiosity and innovation. She began by explaining that as infants, we are all inherently curious and happy. But as we get older and learn to ask questions to satisfy our curiosity, we just as quickly learn that asking “why” annoys those around us. Parents often respond with “just because” out of frustration. Teachers frown upon asking too many questions in class because it’s disruptive. At work we’re often discouraged because we feel we should know the answer or because curiosity is not quick and linear. And God forbid we take our time or take pause to fully understand if the path we’re taking is indeed the best one to take.

The bad news is: we stopped asking questions (or ask them much less) and consequently, happiness is no longer a given, it needs work. For the most part, we’ve grown comfortable with the status quo. It’s not our fault, but it is our responsibility to nurture our curiosity so we can remain innovative and reclaim our inherent joy. The good news is: the plasticity of our brains proves that we can learn and unlearn certain behaviors. There’s rarely ever one right answer so you must keep asking. Learn to ask better questions and re-develop your curiosity.

4. Never underestimate the human ability to rationalize.

From his many years of experience, as a father, a politician and the 47th Vice President of the United States, Joe Biden claimed that of all the people he’s met, the ones who are both successful and happy are ones that don't engage in rationalization.

People will justify reasons both for and against certain actions, feelings or behaviors. We all like to be right and respected; justified in our actions and decisions, and as leaders with great responsibilities, it’s understandable how rationalization can sometimes creep in. However, good leadership does not come from convincing ourselves that our way is the right way, it comes from honestly analyzing our choices and learning from them. When we’re busy defending and rationalizing our actions and thoughts, we miss opportunities to learn. Forget about being right or wrong, true leaders seek the lesson rather than the praise and know how to escape the rationalization trap.

All the speakers brought great value and interesting perspectives to the conference but I must admit, Joe Biden stole the show. The content of his keynote was inspirational. He spoke of several great leaders he encountered throughout his career, from world leaders to everyday community members. He spoke about his late son, and the many ways Beau was the best leader he had ever known. He gave sound and actionable advice for everyone in the audience. But the magic of his address was entirely in his delivery. He spoke with conviction, with passion and a sincerity that permeated the room which could not have been faked. As his passion grew with every example he gave, so did his voice. Until finally his voice dropped to nearly a whisper, and with perfectly timed pauses to elicit an emotional response, he shared his final thoughts. His closing words have greatly influenced my vision for the year ahead.

“Silence is complicity.

What you say matters. What you do matters more.

Be who you are. Stand for what you are.

Leaders lead by example.”

This year I will use the voice that I’ve found in myself and help others to do the same. How will you choose to lead by example?