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Five Steps Toward Becoming A Better Leader

The Faith of LeadershipAs a well-respected executive at some of Hawai‘i’s top companies, Robbie Alm has had plenty of opportunity to observe and document the best practices of great leaders. From the story of the “Live Aloha” program—which he helped launch—to instructive anecdotes of humility and integrity in business, he now shares what he has learned in a new book, The Faith of Leadership: Insights from Hawai‘i’s Leaders. Currently president of the Collaborative Leaders Network, a problem-solving initiative of The Omidyar Group, Robbie offers a thoughtful—and useful—study of just what makes an effective leader. Excellence in leadership, he believes, is less about wealth and power and more about positivity and serving as a good model. The faith of leadership lies in setting a course that will accomplish what is right—and accepting the challenge of working on a problem that may not be solved in the near future. “I’ve always found it important to believe that while I may not be there to see it, things I do will ultimately make a difference,” he says.

During more than three decades spent with the Hawai‘i State Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs, First Hawaiian Bank and the Hawaiian Electric Company, Robbie has come to see that leadership boils down to three basic fundamentals: “First, work as hard or harder than anyone else. Second, live right in your relationships with others. And finally, remember that for all our planning and working and living right, some of it seems to come down to pure luck.”

Here are five steps Robbie suggests you can take toward becoming an excellent leader. Each comes straight from a different chapter of the book, where specific examples of these traits in action are included, so for more, pick up a copy today. You can also meet Robbie at his upcoming book signing benefitting PBS Hawai‘i on Saturday, February 28, 1pm – 2pm at Barnes & Noble, Ala Moana. Use this voucher to help earn funds for PBS Hawai‘i.


  • Listen. The most important leadership behavior is listening—great listening. The first reaction of most is to say, “But I listen all the time, I’m constantly listening to others and letting the result of that listening impact what I do.” If we polled them, most people would undoubtedly categorize themselves as good listeners. The plain reality, however, is that we’re not very good listeners at all. Part of our poor listening comes from our celebration of our capacity for multitasking. Even as we’re on the cell phone trying to listen to someone else speak, we run our task lists through our heads; the distraction diminishes the quality of our listening. Great listening is a very deliberate and conscious physical and mental activity. We need to go into it with all the focus on skill and execution that we would apply to the most complex activity we have ever undertaken. Also, get into the habit of going and talking to lots of people and constantly rethinking who you should talk to in order to avoid limiting yourself to a few obvious voices. Listen to those who are often not heard or invited to speak. Do not underestimate the perspective of line staff, ever!
  • Be humble. Great leadership comes from an understanding of the power that lies in humility. A quick reading tells you there’s a range of what humility means, from a negative tone that speaks to being lesser to a positive tone that speaks to the proper relationship of oneself to others. Humility is not weakness; it’s the absence of arrogance of thinking that it’s all about you and your work. This sense of humility means taking deliberate action to use all available talent to achieve the greatest possible success. Humility does not mean denying our own talents, but it requires that we recognize the talents of others (as well as our own) and make the greatest possible use of each of them. Very few of us are so brilliant that we can come up with every answer ourselves. Our successes are almost always the product of the combined ideas and talents of a group of people. A key attribute of humble leaders is their constant acknowledgment of the work of others; they build great teams because of their significant emphasis on team success rather than their own individual success.
  • Work with resistance to change. The need for particularly great leadership strongly emerges when significant levels of change are required. Leading in times of change is one of the most difficult activities leaders will ever face. It’s logical to begin with the question, why do people resist change? Or looked at another way, if change is essential and good for an organization, why do we struggle so much with it? Human beings generally like routine and predictability. Change throws them off, and they don’t like it very much. One key to handling change resistance is to keep remembering that the basic resistance comes from human nature, and therefore it is important not to overreact to [what seems like a personal attack on you in response to change]. Once you understand the challenge of resistance to change, and where it springs from, there’s a lot more you can do beyond just not being defensive when you are attacked for leading the change. The question of why a change is being made should always be discussed early, openly and factually. This is true even if the reasons for change are very clear. People who are about to undergo major change want to hear the “why” directly from their leaders. There are always exceptions, but the goal should always be full disclosure on the reason for an action as early as possible in the process.
  • Walk the talk. There are all sorts of phrases used to discuss integrity. My personal favorite is “walk the talk.” It speaks to the well-known admonition, “People will follow what you do, not what you say.” It makes acting on integrity the key, not making speeches about it. There are a number of aspects of integrity that are important to acknowledge. First, while it’s important to have integrity when others are looking; it’s even more important to have integrity when no one is looking. When you are completely alone and no one is watching you, does your behavior vary, do you do things you wouldn’t do if they were watching? The answer in terms of integrity must be no. Integrity is a lifestyle; it is a way of living that imbues all of your actions. It is an approach to life that calls upon you to be at your very best and to reflect that to the world around you. It must however be said that integrity may require that you take risks. Your sense that an act is right doesn’t mean that acting in that way will be popular, or that it will be seen as politic. And while a decision to act with integrity may look good in a historical context, at the time of the action it may be a very difficult and dangerous path to walk. You can find yourself criticized, ostracized and even have your livelihood threatened or taken away. As much as it sounds great to act with integrity, it’s not always easy, which is why it is a hallmark of an excellent leader.
  • Understand how others see the world. One of my favorite photos, one I use a lot when speaking, shows a goldfish in a bowl on a table. Staring at it on two sides of the table are a little boy and a cat. As I say to my audiences, that goldfish is either an object of awe and wonder, or it looks like lunch. It’s all a matter of how you see the world, it’s a matter of perspective. Whether we’re talking to one person or a group, they will have as many different worldviews as there are people present. We each see the world through our own physical and mental filters, our experiences, our knowledge, our prejudices and biases. As leaders, we need to know and work with that reality in everything we do. It may be tough to figure out. And when we do, we may well not agree with their position or even believe that someone could possibly see the world in the way they do. Nonetheless it’s important to understand people and where they are coming from. If we’re confronted by behavior that seems inexplicable to us, the right question is, what might have led them to do that? We may even want to ask them, “You know, I was kind of surprised at how you handled that situation. I would be really curious (or, it would be a real learning lesson for me) as to what you saw and why you took the steps you did.” Without sarcasm of course. The genuineness of your question must be very clear. And for me it always is. When I see someone doing something I don’t get, I really do like to find out why they did what they did.
Excerpted from The Faith of Leadership: Insights from Hawai‘i’s Leaders by Robbie Alm. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information retrieval systems, without prior written permission from the publisher, except for brief passages quoted in reviews.

The Faith of Leadership: Insights From Hawai‘i’s Leaders
by Robbie Alm
Softcover, 120 pages