Linda Bailey of the New Memphis Institute
On empowering others, being a lifelong learner, and the difference between talent and skills.
photograph by Larry Kuzniewski
Linda Bailey has made a living on leadership. Inspired by her work with Goals for Memphis, Bailey helped found the Leadership Academy (now the New Memphis Institute) in 1997 to identify and train future leaders of the Memphis community. Since 2002 she’s been CEO of Linda Bailey Leadership, further extending her imprint on the decision-makers and difference-makers in the Mid-South. Among her clients are some names you know: Barbara Hyde, Duncan Williams, Mark Fogelman. Some leaders are born and some are made, but most leaders in Memphis find their way to Linda Bailey.
“We took on a lot of issues at Goals for Memphis,” recalls Bailey, “and leadership development was an issue I took to the board. Leadership Memphis was doing a great job of educating people who were already leaders about the city. But at the time no one was doing personal leadership development. If we could raise the bar on the thinking of leaders, perhaps we could get more sophisticated solutions to old problems and see things from new perspectives. I fell in love with the idea of developing people.”
Born and raised in northwest Arkansas and educated at Tulane, Bailey moved to Memphis (from Little Rock) with her husband, Rod, in 1973. They’ve raised two kids in Memphis and have come to see the Bluff City as a unique place to call home, the charms of small-town life flavoring a community where leaders are found in myriad shapes and forms.
Early in her career, Bailey turned her focus sharply toward the city she aimed to improve. “[The Leadership Academy] didn’t need to hire someone from New York City to come tell us what our problems are,” she says. “We know what our issues are, and the solutions are within us as a city. We had to take that responsibility: unleashing what’s already there, and getting in touch with that.”
Working with businesses as large as FedEx and AutoZone, Bailey adapts her leadership training to accommodate small teams within companies, customizing every session around the mission and needs of that team. “I help individuals and teams reach their potential,” she says. “When the players change, the dynamics of a team change. Change is good for my business.”
How exactly does Bailey bring the most out of a leader or team of leaders? It starts with a look in the proverbial mirror. “To be highly effective as a leader,” she says, “you have to know who you are very deeply. What are the strengths and assets of all team members? And how do they complement each other? Things that may be pushing people’s buttons can be flipped and become complementary. You get the best results from diverse thinking.”
It’s one thing for someone to have strengths in the workplace and quite another to identify how those strengths can best be utilized within a business plan. “People come into the world with a lot of gifts,” says Bailey, “and they don’t clearly understand those gifts. I help put them in touch with them. Sometimes it’s during a career transition. Sometimes it’s when people get stuck on a particular issue. We have an incredible capacity to get in our own way. People need clarity. They get stuck when they have only one way of looking at things.”
Having researched leaders from small businesses and large, there are a few traits Bailey has come to recognize as core qualities. “Highly effective people are intentional about their behavior,” she says. “Fred Smith doesn’t get up in the morning and just get into his leadership car. He’s intentional about what he does, and doesn’t do. He’s aware of what he does very well and when somebody else does it better.”
“There’s no magic formula,” Bailey continues. “People lead from within. You can’t be intentional until you know what you do [well] automatically. The way you see the world says more about you than it does the world.”
Leadership can be clouded by intimidation. When asked about the less-than-gentle reputation of Apple founder Steve Jobs, Bailey points out a cold reality of the leadership dynamic. “People will follow under a state of domination and because you have the title,” she says. “But you’ll never get all that somebody’s got to give unless they feel valued. [Jobs] made a lot of money, and how can you criticize that? But it was an old style of leadership.”
Bailey’s favorite leaders from history tend to share two qualities: generally optimistic and verbally persuasive. But these figures led with very different styles. She describes George Washington’s as logistical; Abraham Lincoln’s as cerebral and detached. Winston Churchill’s brilliance was tactical, while Dwight Eisenhower’s greatest strengths as Allied Commander in World War II were his skill and instincts with diplomacy, not so much acumen for military strategy.
Bailey likes to distinguish between a leader’s talent and that same person’s skills.
“Talent is different from what you learn in school or can be trained to do,” she says. “Talent is re-occurring patterns of thought. It’s ingrained. Some people have the talent to be an administrator and some don’t. Some have the talent for trouble-shooting. Some of us have the talent to sell. You can put someone through all kinds of training, but if they don’t have the raw talent to sell, they’re not going to be successful.”
Remember that optimism? Verbal persuasiveness? Turns out these are ingredients for great leaders and great salespeople.
Among Bailey’s favorite mantras is the following: Effective leaders are lifelong learners. The sooner a person recognizes how much he or she doesn’t know the sooner that person becomes a capable leader. “None of us has it all,” says Bailey. “Sometimes you have to get better at that thing you’re least good at. Surround yourself with people who are smarter and who will push you.”
For more information, go to LindaBaileyLeadership.com.