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The Leadership Lattice: Brian Gast

Ann Spoor //September 13, 2011//

The Leadership Lattice: Brian Gast

Ann Spoor //September 13, 2011//

The Leadership Lattice, an interview series designed to cultivate conversation on building strong leadership in the public and private sector, presents: Brian Gast, executive coach and former CEO. You can view the video of this interview by going to, then to The Leadership Lattice.

What defines a great leader?

Great leaders have to be great team members; they have to be the ones that wouldn’t be voted off of the island first in a survivor game. A great leader has the ability to meet people’s core needs- the need for respect, affirmation and challenge. Great leaders have sensitivity to what motivates people, what fuels and inspires both people and organizations, on a global and individual basis. We find that some leaders are in jobs because of their intellect and hard work and they get away with things because they are the boss. They ultimately derail because of their weak relational skills and emotional intelligence. 

What were some important leadership lessons for you?

I have a theory that after age 30, we don’t learn from our successes; we learn from our failures. I’ve made all of the mistakes- what I call, really smart people making really stupid mistakes. When I was a young CEO, I hired a very senior guy, very quickly, too quickly, and I ended up hitting every blind spot possible. At the time, I needed to validate myself, to be seen and to be approved.

The person I hired was someone whose approval I sought. This need for approval was running very deeply but I didn’t see it. At that moment, I was not motivated by my values, the values I built the company around. Leaders implode because they don’t know what motivates them; they don’t understand their own core values. They are motivated by a core need that that they often don’t recognize which causes them to pursue ill fated strategies. Values are not the same as needs. Great leaders understand this difference.

The biggest lesson though came when, at age 36, I was fired from the public company I was running because of a disagreement over whether the company should be sold or not. I thought this company was ripe to be sold and thought I knew the value of the company. The Chairman and Board disagreed with me. So, I shopped the company thinking I would bring them something concrete. They fired me before I could get this done. In hindsight, that is exactly what should have happened. The lesson was that leaders often forget to sell to their inner circle. After all, they are the leader so they don’t feel they need to sell internally. Or, they don’t realize who their inner circle is. So, even as CEO, you have to sell and get buy-in internally as well as externally. 

Did you have a mentor early in your career?

I had a number of mentors but, mostly when I was younger. They taught me the value of hard work but mostly they saw me. They saw me as a unique person and saw my gifts. These relationships gave me more confidence. But, as a leader, I was hard to manage. I kept my own counsel. I didn’t think I needed any mentoring; I was resistant and looking back, I am grateful that there were people who hung in there with me. 

What is the difference between coaching and mentoring?

Coaches have training and have the ability to read you and get insights by listening to you. Coaching is not about friendship or acceptance. Sometimes it’s about challenge. Mentoring can be defined in many different ways. So much of mentoring is about modeling. Mentors provide support and no judgment. If you are looking for a mentor, it’s important to realize that senior people want to be mentors for many reasons. Being asked to be a mentor is a gift. Sometimes it’s a legacy. If you are establishing a mentor relationship, be strategic. You need to agree on the goals of the relationship and the structure of the relationship. Mentors are not authority figures, they don’t make the rules. It is a mutually agreed upon relationship.
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