When I was training the Marines of the Auburn University Naval ROTC Unit, I had a sign on my desk that summarized my approach to leadership. It said, “Forge the Jell-O.” I suspect I’m the only Marine to ever include such a gelatinous substance in my leadership philosophy.
Imagine yourself as a skilled Jell-O chef: You mix up the ingredients (water, gelatin, flavoring), pour the mixture into a mold, and refrigerate it overnight until it firms up. When you think the Jell-O is firm enough, you take the mold and turn it upside down on a plate, shaking out the Jell-O to loosen it from the mold. Then, the Jell-O will stand firm on its own, in the shape of the mold. Congratulations.
The leadership metaphor: The leader is the cook. The Jell-O is the individual being trained/led. The mold is external motivation for the led to take the form that the leader envisions. The gelatin is self-discipline and integrity—the internal motivation to take that new form.
But leaders often make one of two mistakes:
1. Some leaders don’t realize that they have the opportunity to shape others. They may occasionally add in some helpful ingredients to those around them, but without a deliberate vision of who the led can become (and external motivation to get there), it becomes a messy and haphazard affair. Imagine pouring Jell-O into the refrigerator without a mold to shape it.
2. Other leaders have a good sense of what shape they want those they lead to take, but they don’t provide others a way to stand on their own. Without the integrity and self-discipline that drives individuals from within, we end up with individuals who can perform at high levels only when the mold is tightly clamped down. When the mold is lifted, they ooze back into a shapeless mess.
Transformative leadership requires that we clearly envision who others can become, that we provide external support for others to achieve that form, and that we create an environment where self-discipline and integrity flourish.