Management First - Journal of Business Strategy: An Interview with Brent Filson

Brent Filson has published books and articles on leadership, developed motivational leadership strategies, processes and skill sets and created and instituted leadership educational and training programs. In this extended interview, read his engaging thoughts on modern leadership.

By Brent Filson - April 2009

An interview with Brent Filson

Interview by Alistair Craven

Brent Filson first learned about leadership as a Marine Corps infantry officer. Since then, he has consulted with many leaders of all ranks and functions in top U.S. businesses.

He has also published books and articles on leadership, developed motivational leadership strategies, processes and skill sets and created and instituted leadership educational and training programs. He is the author of more than 20 books which have been featured in more than 200 magazines and newspapers and scores of radio and television shows. He has lectured at Columbia University, MIT, Boston College, Wake Forest University and many more.


Can you tell us about your Web site

Brent Filson:

It's all about realizing one fundamental concept: helping leaders get more results faster continually. A human resource director told me that the single most important thing that defines people's careers is leadership, or lack thereof. Now I say that getting results is the most important thing leaders do. So, why not get more results, get those results faster, and get more, faster on a continual basis? That's not just a job imperative, that's a career imperative. I like to think that people can go to my website and click on any button - my articles, my books, my maxims, my interviews, my systems courses - and find great ways to manifest that imperative.


Many years ago you served as a platoon leader in the US Marine Corps. To what extent have your views and opinions on leadership been influenced by your military service?

Brent Filson:

I met all sorts of leaders in the Marines. The best were able to motivate the troops to literally put their lives on the line for them. The worst had the troops wanting the leaders themselves to put their lives on the line for THEM! I came to discover that the difference between the best and the worst was the best could forge deep, human, emotional connections with the people they led. The worst didn't. It was as simple as that. I learned that leadership was motivational or it was stumbling in the dark. I learned that we never know how good we are as leaders unless we are motivating people to be better than they think they are. The great leaders in the military could make that happen, could get the troops to do things they never thought they could do, things that they would look back in wonder at having done.

This holds true in civilian life as well. This is what leadership is really all about, and it goes right to the heart of "more results faster continually." After all, when all is said and done, the end of leadership is not what we achieve but what we, and the people we lead become, in that achieving. As a first sergeant said to me, "Nobody in this Corps has too much rank to dig!"


Where do you stand in the debate about whether leaders are born or made?

Brent Filson:

Great leaders are neither born nor made. They ARE! I tell every leader I work with: "You yourself are not going to become a great leader. Right now, you ALREADY ARE a great leader -- although you may not know it yet."

I'm sure you've heard the story of Michelangelo, the block of stone, and the statue. Asked how he could sculpt such beautiful statues, such as "David", Michelangelo replied, "It's not as hard as you think. Every block of stone has a statue inside it. I merely remove the extra stone to reveal that statue." So it is with you and leadership. Simply get rid of those things covering up your intrinsic greatness. Things like lack of confidence, a proclivity to give speeches and presentations, a misunderstanding of motivation, wrong ideas about results, being oblivious to the needs of the people, and being ignorant of what right action truly is - and is not. It's not as hard as you think! Yet if you don't have the right philosophy of leadership and the right processes, it's impossible. This gets back to what I learned in the Marines. The best leaders could forge those deep, human, emotional connections with people. Simply being human, you can forge those connections. Simply BE human. The art of great leadership is the art of being yourself. It takes years to master that art. And it takes adherence to specific processes. It's taken me 20 years to learn those processes, and they all center on the "Leadership Talk."

Do the challenges of today's modern workplace demand new and more varied skillsets than, say, 20 years ago?

Brent Filson:

Absolutely. First, let's look at the basic concept of leadership itself. The word "leadership" itself comes from old Norse root meaning "to make go." But leaders often stumble when trying to understand who makes what go? Generally, the conventional view of leadership has been one of an order-giving process. Many leaders believe that they must "make" people go by ordering them to do things. Order-leadership in business has its roots in the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution. "Order" comes from a Latin root meaning to arrange threads in a weaving woof. The captains of the Revolution dealt with the relatively uneducated country people who flocked to their factories by ordering them where, how, and when to work. The most efficient and effective production methods resulted from workers being "ordered" or ranked like threads in the woof of production lines. Refined and empowered by the Victorian commercial culture, with its patriarchal power structure and strong links to Prussian military organization, the culture of the order-giver leader reached its zenith in the United States after World War II.

During the post-war years, many U.S. businesses were like ocean liners plowing through relatively calm seas, their leaders, like liner captains and mates, running things by getting orders from superiors, giving orders to subordinates and making sure that those orders were carried out. But roughly since the mid-1980s, with competition increasing dramatically on a global scale, business leaders have come to need skills not akin to ocean liner piloting but white-water canoeing. Order leadership founders where lines of authority are blurring, the volume and velocity of information proliferating, markets rapidly changing, and alliance and coalition building multiplying.

One of the reasons our nation can do a lot better in this so-called "war on terror" is that we are fighting with leaders who are pretty much order-giving bureaucrats. We should bring leaders who have had to thrive in the highly competitive, fast changing environment of the global marketplace into helping lead the war.

In his interview with ManagementFirst, leadership expert Warren Bennis states that leaders must engage, motivate and animate people in their organizations. How can these challenges be effectively addressed?

Brent Filson:

It's easy to talk about motivation, it's another thing to do it consistently throughout your career. The way you do it consistently is with Leadership Talks.

Look at it this way, there's a hierarchy of verbal persuasion when it comes to business leadership. The lowest levels are speeches and presentations. They communicate information. The highest, most effective way of communicating is the Leadership Talk. The Leadership Talk does more than simply send information. It has the leader establish that deep, human, emotional connection with the audience that I talked about.

That's the kind of connection that leads to great results. That's where business leaders communicate for the best results. You can order people to go from point A t


April 2009© The Filson Leadership Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

The author of 23 books, Brent Filson's recent books are, THE LEADERSHIP TALK: THE GREATEST LEADERSHIP TOOL and 101 WAYS TO GIVE GREAT LEADERSHIP TALKS. He is founder and president of The Filson Leadership Group, Inc. – Celebrating 25 years of helping leaders of top companies worldwide achieve outstanding results every day. Sign up for his free leadership e-zine and get his FREE report "7 Steps To Leadership Mastery"