Remain humble and open, admitting mistakes and changes of heart, and do not allow your ambivalence or uncertainty to undermine how you communicate decisions, which need to be clear, firm, and stable for a decent enough interval that people can trust the ground they walk on.
We are living in the Renaissance of Work. Just like great artists know that an empty canvas can become anything, great leaders know that an entire organization — and the people inside it — can become anything, too. Master Artists and Mastering the Art of Leadership draw from the same source: creation. In this series, we’ll meet masters who are creating the future of work and painting a portrait of lasting leadership. As part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Rachel Bellow.
Rachel Bellow is a co-founder of Bonfire Women, a talent development accelerator focused on helping women equip themselves to shape the workplace of the future. A social change strategist and entrepreneur, she is also the principal at Mind + Matter Studio, where she focuses on influence strategies for social change. She has served on many boards and advisory committees, advised some of America’s most prominent leaders and is a frequent guest lecturer at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. Rachel lives in New York City.
Thank you for joining us. Our readers would enjoy discovering something interesting about you. What are you in the middle of right now that you’re excited about personally or professionally?
I’m having a rare experience in which I’m able to see with clarity exactly what I will be doing in 2023, and what must be done by the end of this year. My company is bringing in new leadership to replace me and my co-founder, and we will move to executive chair positions on the Board. But before that happens, I need to onboard the new leadership team, and seamlessly merge a new content library we’ve acquired with our existing content so that it can be packaged and sold in a way that allows our company to scale. As the co-founder most familiar with our original content and strategy, I will need to spend the coming year bearing much of the weight of this big lift. As 2023 dawns, I feel like a climber at the base camp of Kilimanjaro, strapping on my backpack, checking the strength of the ropes that tie me to my fellow climbers, and praying that they won’t choose to leave me behind if I slip and fall.
We all get by with a little help from our friends. Who is the leader that has influenced you the most, and how?
There is only one person whose words and ways I use as a constant touchstone when it comes to leadership. The late Bill Bowen had been a spectacularly successful President of Princeton University for nearly two decades before he became President of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, where he hired me into a job way beyond my experience early in my career. I had never seen, nor have I since, anyone who understood achievement — what it means, what it takes, and how to inspire it in others — the way he did. How he ran a meeting, how he maintained extraordinary focus on outcomes, how he seized risky opportunities and ruthlessly cut losses, and how he refused to call attention to himself and his many successes. Bill was a walking Master Class in leadership. He died in 2016, but his voice lives with me every day.
Sometimes our biggest mistakes lead to our biggest discoveries. What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made as a leader, and what did you discover as a result?
It’s hard to pick one among the pantheon of errors that have shaped my career. One that stands out because it took so long to recognize and then to stop making is obeying what my long-time business partner and I call the “no reluctant dragons” rule (attributed to Bill Bowen who was referring to the classic 1941 Disney movie, The Reluctant Dragon). This mistake occurs when you have an idea for something you want someone else to do, take on or agree to. Often, this would come up when I would want someone to play a role or accept an opportunity I had in mind for them. I would become fixated on how perfect this would be for them (really for me, if they said yes). I am persuasive. I paint the picture for them of what an ideal fit it would be. They’re hesitant. They go back and forth, but I finally persuade them to agree… reluctantly. This is ALWAYS a mistake. Their doubts will only increase, they will always experience this as MY idea, not theirs. They will never own this in the way I want them to. BIG MISTAKE. So now, when I sense reluctance, even if I cannot imagine why they would have any, I back off and remind myself: No reluctant dragons!
How has your definition of leadership changed or evolved over time? What does it mean to be a leader now?
Early in my career, I viewed leadership as the ability to grab and hold the lead, to move to the front and to inspire others to follow. Over time, having seen so many different varieties of leadership, I’ve shifted my focus to the question of impact. What actually creates impact? I became less interested in the “power over” and more interested in the “power to.” There are as many ways to lead as there are ways of being in the world, but my definition of leadership is the ability to influence others to realize a vision of the future that is better for all.
Success is as often as much about what we stop as what we start. What is one legacy leadership behavior you stopped because you discovered it was no longer valuable or relevant?
Whether this is a function of ego, maturity or physical exhaustion, I no longer pretend that I have all the answers. When questions come up from my team, I now often defer back to the team to hear their thoughts before offering my own. I’ve discovered that leadership is mostly about exercising judgment, which means wisely weighing multiple options that come from other sources vs. being the source oneself.
What is one lasting leadership behavior you started or are cultivating because you believe it is valuable or relevant?
For many years I’ve understood the power of a well-posed question. My father was a physicist, and the highest compliment he could offer was, “That is an excellent question.” It turns out, however, that shifting one’s focus from being the one with the answer to being the one with the right question takes a lot of self-containment and restraint. So, I guess the upshot of my answers to so many of these questions seems to be: The key to great leadership is to reach emotional maturity before you get too old to exercise it.
What advice would you offer to other leaders who are stuck in past playbooks and patterns and may be having a hard time letting go of what made them successful in the past?
My advice would be that of Jack Welch, who said, “If the rate of change on the outside exceeds the rate of change on the inside, the end is near.” The same holds true not just for companies, but also for individuals. If your perspective, playbook and patterns are out of sync with the rapidly evolving culture around you — you’re done.
Many of our readers can relate to the challenge of leading people for the first time. What advice would you offer to new and emerging leaders?
I’d offer this seemingly contradictory advice: Remain humble and open, admitting mistakes and changes of heart, and do not allow your ambivalence or uncertainty to undermine how you communicate decisions, which need to be clear, firm, and stable for a decent enough interval that people can trust the ground they walk on.
Based on your experience or research, what are the top five traits effective leaders exemplify now? Please share a story or an example for each.
Oh my God this would take a week to answer. Also, I’m terrible with listicles.
American Basketball Coach John Wooden said, “Make each day your masterpiece.” How do you embody that quote? We welcome a story or example.
Well, I obviously don’t embody that quote every day. In fact, I don’t think it puts the emphasis on the right thing. Your day isn’t a noun, it’s a verb. It’s not a product, but a process. Instead, my dictum would be, “Be as fully present in the moments that make up your day as you possibly can, and hold the intention to summon love versus fear whenever you are called to act.”
What is the legacy you aspire to leave as a leader?
I would love those I have led to believe that I helped them be the best they could be.
How can our readers connect with you to continue the conversation?
Thank you for giving us the opportunity to experience a leadership master at work. We wish you continued success and good health!