Sales and the art of Leadership

By | January 10, 2017

Leadership is a critical element of any expedition, any venture, any startup, but too often the real value of leadership is lost in a hierarchy. This post will offer foundational pillars to lead in a more complete, holistic style that develops a balanced and effective leader.

I recall a story about a NASA space shuttle crew in training with the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS). Not surprisingly, the group was flush with natural leaders, all of which were fully capable of assuming a designated leadership role. They were training as a team in a remote slot canyon in Utah, a geography specifically selected to place this team in an environment that none of them were familiar with. The experience was new to all of them.

They rotated the Designated Leader (a term we’ll explore later in the post) role each day. On just the second day of their 10 day trip during the ascent of a slot canyon they came upon a steep dry waterfall that they would either have to climb, or turn around and abandon the ascent. Slot canyons are deep, narrow canyons cut by flash-floods – like you may have seen in the recent movie 127 Hours – and they are no simple hike/climb.

Assessing risk and making the right calls are critical to safety and success. In this situation, if they decided to go forward, they would have to climb down into the water-filled hole at the base of the waterfall cut and form a human ladder to ascend, not knowing what lay ahead. The crew commander, and the designated leader that day, felt the prudent choice was to turn around. He did not want to risk injury or worse, prior to the shuttle launch. But he polled the group and found that most wanted to push on.

This was a tense moment since there had been much passionate discussion and he was clearly in the minority. But like his shuttle mission, this was not necessarily a democracy. The tension broke when he deliberately walked into the pool to form the base of the ladder, and committed to move forward.

Leadership should run deep and broad, but is much more than a bunch of highly confident individuals, all trying to call the shots. In other words, a good leader has the ability to change leadership types as the situation demands.

Highly functional organizations recognize that leadership must run deep, regardless of whether it is a sales organization, a climbing expedition, or a space shuttle crew. In this post, we are going to explore how the VP of Sales is “the Leader” of sales and therefore fully responsible for that part of the organization.

While it is the VP may be ultimately responsible for the resulting contribution of the sales organization, it is misguided to think that leadership can or should come exclusively from the VP of Sales.

NOLS outlines 4 pillars of leadership that define the roles within a fully functional team and 7 elements of leadership that define the characteristics found in any good leader. Taken together they can provide a clear picture of a fully functional team – particularly in a startup environment – and a framework for achieving above and beyond expectations. The four pillars include: Designated Leader, Active Followership, Peer Leadership, Self Leadership.

Designated Leadership: This is the classic definition where one person leads the company, or organization.  In typical startups and small companies, you need the ability to collaborate, to get more ideas, but then a decision is needed. A good designated leader will embody all four of these pillars and be wise enough to know when to move into another leadership type or style.

Active Followership: This means throwing yourself 100% into what the group has decided, after processing, seeking clarity, and making a logical decision yourself. It is showing support, acknowledging the group, the strength of the collective. I consider this one of the more important pillars for a startup and its leadership to focus on.

Peer Leadership: In peer leadership, each person sees what needs to be done and does it without a hierarchy. People exhibiting this pillar, this trait, demonstrate by example. Peer leadership works better when members clarify who is responsible for what.

Self-Leadership: This pillar is often illustrated by the self-motivated person. The person who has the “natural” virtues of leadership. A person with self-leadership skills and talent is often one by virtue of who they are and how they influence others, not by the position they hold. They will step up in almost any circumstance, not necessarily to overtly lead, but by their comments, ideas, and actions, people will naturally follow them to get the job done.

Let’s head back to that slot canyon in Utah briefly. Everyone on the NASA team knew at the moment the designated leader stepped into the water that they were developing into a strong, fully functioning team. They knew then that they would be successful ascending the slot canyon – and ultimately on the space shuttle flight.

The Designated Leader had the self-awareness to recognize the situation, clearly and objectively assess the best course of action even though it was not his own selected path, and proactively take on the role of Active Follower, thereby solidifying the dynamic of the team and the future success of their space shuttle mission.

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About NOLS and Dave Jones:

NOLS is the world leader in teaching wilderness leadership skills. Besides their core clientele of aspiring guides and outdoor educators, NOLS teaches Navy Midshipman, Wharton Business School students, and NASA Astronauts.

Dave has completed NOLS’ 30 day mountaineering course in the Wind Rivers mountain range in Wyoming, participated in subsequent NOLS trips and seminars, been a member of the NOLS Advisory Council for 10 years, and served as the co-chair for the Advisory Council for 2 years.  Dave believes in the organization and that the lessons are directly applicable to the high risk of an entrepreneurial startup.

Resources:  Sales Leadership:

Author: Dave Jones, Managing Partner

David C. Jones – Managing Partner

David C. Jones – Managing Partner


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