Leadership expert Kyle McDowell has been to the other side of the galaxy and has returned to tell us about it. The best-selling author of Begin With We: 10 Principles for Building and Sustaining a Culture of Excellence once led thousands of people at multiple companies before doing the unthinkable: he threw it all away to do some soul-searching about the real meaning of leadership. Now Kyle is back with a message that he is delivering to audiences in corporate America: it is time to look under the hood and rethink how the relationships between leaders and teams are defined.
“Corporate America is at a real point of inflection. I hear it all the time, and the data say our workforce is burned out and wants more from their 9-5 jobs,” says McDowell. “While so many already know this, what’s interesting to me is that rarely do we talk about why. The focus has always been on the company, not the actual people leading the company. Rarely do people become dissatisfied with their company – it’s the people, the leadership, that leaves us wanting more.”
On stage, McDowell says that this is what corporate America faces today: thousands of employees who may be suited for their positions but who lack passion, energy, or even interest in them. He believes he can see the frustration on the faces of those who are listening to him.
“Whether I’m on stage or doing one-to-one coaching, I can feel the apathy, cynicism, and doubt,” he reveals. “But I also see an energy and desire for something more than what corporate America has delivered. I know where they are coming from because I was once there, too, wondering if this was really the best that my work life was ever going to be.”
However, the problem, as we all know, was that most “bosses” (McDowell uses this word as a derogatory term for “leader”) lead by fear and intimidation. He says, “I saw that in my own bosses, and without really thinking about it, I adopted that approach, becoming the boss who accomplished goals for the company but fell woefully short in inspiring growth in members of my team.”
Success. Money. Fancy title. McDowell had it all, but he was left feeling something unexpected – empty. He realized it ultimately came down to one thing: he was spending hours every day with people he barely knew. The “me/them” idea about leaders and teams creates what McDowell has coined “the Leadership Gap.” He points to uninspiring and outdated approaches to leadership as the source of the apathy and disillusionment that afflicts so many workers.
What it came down to, he explains, was finding a way to shrink the distance between a leader and their team while still acknowledging the reality that someone must be in the driver’s seat.
“This was what being a leader was supposed to be like? Really?” McDowell asks. “I love leading big teams on a common mission, but I wasn’t wild about the process most companies and leaders undertake to achieve excellence. I always thought, ‘There must be a better way.’”
Late one night, while he was sitting in his hotel room, preparing for a speech to the top fifty leaders of the organization he then led, he realized that the answer had nothing to do with him and everything to do with WE. He says, “If corporate America could shift from that ‘me/them’ mindset to WE, that would be a game changer. Why should there be a divide at all?”
Excited and optimistic, McDowell penned his leadership principles, which ultimately became the foundation of the book, Begin With WE.
- WE do the right thing. Always.
- WE lead by example.
- WE say what WE’re going to do. Then WE do it.
- WE take action.
- WE own our mistakes.
- WE pick each other up.
- WE measure ourselves by outcomes. Not activity.
- WE challenge each other.
- WE embrace challenge.
- WE obsess over details.
“Do you see the difference?” Kyle asks. “The leader is no longer sitting ‘over there,’ unapproachable and scary. Instead, they are right there in the trenches with their team, leading authentically. Because, with the 10 WEs, there is no I. The principles are for every single person in the org, from the corner cubicle to the corner office – no exceptions.”
Today, McDowell is traveling around the United States, speaking at conferences and companies who are eager to ditch the old leadership playbook in exchange for genuine fulfillment. He understands why corporate America has stayed with the old leadership paradigm for so long. For decades, it didn’t seem to be broken because the economy was growing, companies were scaling, and people had jobs.
“A lot of companies were doing some things right. But the best leaders at the best companies are always in search of even better,” McDowell explains. “And I think COVID played a huge role in forcing many workers to ask, ‘what if’? What if we pressed pause, began to conspicuously embrace WE, and seeked to form authentic connections between leaders and teams? Would corporations be transformed into places of innovation, fulfillment, and even fun? To me, that’s what is most exciting about what I have learned: when you begin with we, you capitalize on the strength and talents of each person, squash the Leadership Gap, and reinstill passion and purpose that have been languishing for too long.”