Why Everyone Thinks Edison Invented the Light Bulb

Great ideas are the currency in today’s competitive business landscape. But even great ideas aren’t enough to distinguish great leaders.

Alan Gershenhorn | UPS

Despite what we learned in school, Thomas Edison didn’t invent the light bulb. What’s more, Alexander Graham Bell didn’t invent the telephone and Galileo didn’t invent the telescope.

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Leaders know how to get others to buy into their vision and follow the path they’ve forged.

That’s not to say these successful inventors don’t deserve their accolades. In fact, each was a master of re-invention and persuasion. They took an existing concept, made it far better – and equally important, convinced enough people in the right places to believe in their idea.

In any successful business, the most effective leaders have the same ability. They know how to get others to buy into their vision and follow the path they’ve forged. That’s why, if you’re hiring for leadership, you need to look deeper into a candidate’s background than what typically appears on a resume.

[Also by Alan Gershenhorn: Why The Best Bosses Are Flexible]

Superstars or coaches?

Resumes usually include two types of accomplishments: those achieved individually and those requiring either coworkers or customers – or both – to get on board and execute on a plan. Having hired and managed people for more than three decades, I prefer the person who can marshal the support necessary to turn ideas into action.

Sure, hiring is an inexact science, and you don’t really know how people will handle the rigors of a demanding new job. But if you’re looking for a predictor of future performance, look at how the candidate performed when a project required them to gain the support of others.

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The best coaches know that if they help others thrive, they’ll have a better chance of building a winning culture.

In many sports, the star athletes get by on their talents alone. But after their playing days are over, many of those same stars struggle as coaches. That’s often because they don’t have the patience to work with players who lack the same talent. Their players sense this, and don’t go all in on their coach’s way of doing things.

The best coaches know that if they help others thrive, they’ll have a better chance of building a winning culture. That’s key because they need buy-in from every player on the roster – the stars and the role players – to build a championship team. The most innovative game plan is useless if they lack the players who can execute it.

Three keys to leadership

So how do great leaders do it? What are their secrets to attracting committed followers?

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They’re great anticipators.

This skill is especially important at large organizations, where there are multiple stakeholders involved in almost any project. The most successful leaders are the ones who articulate and build a case for their ideas among a group with competing interests.

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They’re great communicators.

They give their teams the information they need – in the form they most appreciate – and then step aside and let them perform.

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They leave their egos at the door.

Great leaders let the success of the project speak for them and their teams. When team members see that their leader is promoting the team’s success, they’re more likely to roll up their sleeves and join in.

[Also by Alan Gershenhorn: Six Words That Can Hurt Your Company]

Reading between the lines

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Even the best idea won’t get off the ground if you’re the only person who thinks it will change the world.

I’ve seen how each of these behaviors can change a company’s culture. When UPS expanded its international presence earlier in my career, we already had a well-developed model in the United States for filling leadership positions. Because of the long tenure of most of our US management, the company was able to have our leadership candidates understand every facet of the business before they were promoted. As a result, managers often put in 20 or more years to land a senior leadership role.

In the countries where we were expanding, the situation was different. We had no operating history or employee longevity. The local staffs were less experienced. Since the old rule book didn’t work as well, this was also where I learned important lessons about building an effective team.

A mentor of mine taught me to read between the lines of a resume to determine whether a manager would thrive in a more senior role. My mentor had no problem promoting someone with far less experience if he felt the person had the ability to attract followers.

By challenging tradition and culture, he built a successful team. Under his leadership, we accelerated our growth and improved our quality and efficiency, ultimately leading to significant top- and bottom-line results. I was amazed how the less-experienced people he promoted always rose to the occasion.

Remember, even the best idea won’t get off the ground if you’re the only person who thinks it will change the world.

Just ask the actual inventors of the light bulb, telephone and telescope. Now what were those guys’ names? goldbrown2

This article first appeared on LinkedIn.


Every morning, wake up to the blog that gives you the latest trends shaping tomorrow.

Visit Alan Gershenhorn's Linkedin profile page. Alan Gershenhorn is Executive Vice President and Chief Commercial Officer for UPS, directing strategy, marketing, sales, product and solution development, customer experience management and key growth strategies.

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Reprinted with permission of Longitudes, the UPS blog devoted to the trends shaping the global economy.

1 Comment

  1. Pingback: Stop Searching for Eureka Moments | Longitudes

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