Skip to main content

Leadership is about helping others

Brian Thompson

Five Questions with Brian Thompson
In our “Five Questions” feature we ask scholars, activists, and public officials five short questions about their work (and other things).

Brian Thompson is Assistant Director & Clinical Faculty in the LEAD Program at Boise State’s School of Public Service. Thompson is passionate about the leadership certificate program because he recognizes the great need for honest and authentic leadership in today’s organizational climate, and is dedicated to helping students differentiate themselves as true leaders in practice, enabling them to achieve greater leadership success over the span of their careers. He is also passionate about his family… his wife of 26 years, a daughter (a current Bronco), a son (who is pursuing a music career in Austin), attending live concerts, and traveling. When not on campus, you’ll likely find him escaping to the mountains.

We read in your bio that you haven’t always worked in academia. Why did you decide to leave the private sector for Boise State?
That’s correct—I had the opportunity to work for more than 20 years teaching leadership in the corporate world and had some really incredible experiences. My work provided me with opportunities to support leaders at all levels, from senior executives to front line supervisors, and to witness the unique challenges leaders face at different stages in their career journey. It gave me the opportunity to work in a broad range of industries, including healthcare, manufacturing, finance, and sales, and to appreciate how those various environments enable or challenge leaders. I supported leaders in diverse geographies and cultures across the world, and I was privileged to work closely with them as they navigated significant challenges such as department closures, mass layoffs, dynamic growth, centralization, and globalization. I’m extremely grateful for the opportunities and experiences that have been available to me.

And yet, over the course of my career, two things remained constant.

One was the realization that regardless of the industry, the organizational culture, or the level of leadership we were supporting, my teams and I were always focused on developing the same core leadership competencies. Regardless of the context, our analysis consistently showed a need for leaders to focus on improving the same skills – things like emotional intelligence, communication, motivation, creating psychological safety, and building trust.

And the second thing was a constant belief that leaders should be introduced to these concepts long before they get into their leadership roles. Or better yet, students should learn them before even entering the workforce, giving them an advantage when presented with opportunities for leadership early in their careers. I was regularly amazed that even senior executives often found the core concepts of leadership to be novel and even surprising. It made me begin to believe that our educational systems weren’t adequately preparing workers to lead from the outset. So, I began to fantasize about having the opportunity to work with students who have an interest and passion to lead as they begin their leadership journey. I feel extremely fortunate to have the opportunity to do exactly that now as part of the LEAD program at Boise State.

How does your experience in the private sector inform your work at Boise State?
In all honesty, I’m still exploring that and likely will be for some time. I am recognizing that my corporate experience has provided me with a reservoir of real-world examples and personal experiences that can bring a strong sense of relevance and practicality to the concepts we discuss in the LEAD program. For example, we explore leadership concepts that sometimes seem difficult to resolve, such as balancing empathy with accountability, and I’m fortunate to have compelling stories that demonstrate how those concepts play out in practice.

Also, because corporate leaders are often time-constrained, mired in habits, and distracted by constant work demands, I am conditioned from my corporate experience to try to create cathartic moments in the learning process to motivate learners to change and try new behaviors. When leveraged similarly in the college classroom, those visceral moments can be powerful motivators for students as well.

However, I’m recognizing that students prepare for the learning process differently than corporate leaders. The college classroom demands a balance that can’t lean too heavily on anecdotes, case studies, or cathartic experiences. Those things are still powerful but land differently for eager learners, especially when they don’t come from a strong shared background like they do in a corporate environment.

decorative image
“At its core, leadership is about helping others.”

Can you tell us what makes a good leader, in your view?
This is a big question and I’m glad it included the qualifier of “in your view.” The definition of leadership is as unique as every individual with the inclination to lead, so the answer is a bit different for everybody.

That said, being a good leader requires, first and foremost, a personal motivation that is genuinely centered on the success of those you lead. There’s very little room for self-interest in real leadership. All too often, people aspire to leadership roles because they want to advance their own career, agenda, or power. If that is the underlying motivation, one’s leadership experience will be filled with frustration. They will inevitably begin to view their followers as obstacles, or worse, as tools to leverage for their own advancement. This is the antithesis of true leadership, but it exists all around us.

At its core, leadership is about helping others. Those who give themselves over to the sincere desire to support the development, accomplishments, and well-being of others are ultimately the ones who find success in their own leadership, and who position themselves for expanded influence. Genuine leaders don’t have to demand the spotlight. They earn it through being worthy of others’ attention and appreciation.

If you had to give three tips to someone wanting to improve their leadership skills, what would they be?
Again, as leadership is unique to every individual, the best tips are tailored to the person’s unique character, competencies, and circumstances. But aside from that, I think there are some tips that are pretty universal.

First, I’d say leadership starts behind your eyeballs. Start with getting your own head right about why you want to be a leader. Be really honest with yourself. Be intentional about exploring your values, capabilities, intentions and your desires for those you lead. There’s no such thing as being too self-aware, no matter how much leadership experience you have. I often warn my students that they’ll hear me say one thing a thousand times, and that is…you cannot lead others at a higher level than you lead yourself. It’s always true.

Second, learn to embrace chaos. Leadership is inherently messy. You will find yourself in the midst of complex, ambiguous, and overwhelming challenges that you could not have felt prepared to handle. Don’t let these deplete you. They are expected and inevitable. So, lean into the discomfort, recognize the challenge as a call to improve your leadership, and then dive in unapologetically. During a particularly challenging time I actually bought my team “Embrace the Chaos” t-shirts. (I think they helped!)

And third, at the risk of sounding trite, I’d say crack open another book. It’s inherently an act of humility to do so. Leadership is such a rich and dynamic topic that there’s never a shortage of new work coming out that will challenge and advance your understanding. Reading Simon Sinek, Brené Brown, Patrick Lencioni, or countless other experts in the field will invariably challenge your beliefs about your own leadership. What got you where you are won’t likely be what gets you through the next challenge you will face as leaders in this ever-changing modern workplace.

“Leadership is inherently messy.”

When you think about leadership in the United States today, what causes you concern and what gives you hope?
These questions are so good. This is something I literally lose sleep over at times. When I think about leadership in the United States today, one thing that rises to the surface for me is a concern that leaders are losing a clear sense of what their opposition is.

To better explain, leadership is born amid opposition. That opposition may stem from any number of sources (e.g., a threat, needed change, or even stagnation), but it remains that leadership exists because something needs to be overcome. If leaders don’t have a clear sense of what needs to be overcome, they risk spending all their efforts competing against the wrong things. And in our fast-paced and frenetic environment, that is becoming more common.

To give an example, I once interviewed for a position at a large site within a national technology company. I asked the site leader what he considered to be his opposition and he responded that it was one of the other large sites in the company. Rather than focusing on other companies in the market, he was fighting those in his own organization. This promotes low-trust behaviors and unnecessary conflict, and disrupts necessary collaboration. Everything slows down. He had lost sight of his opposition. An even better answer would have been that he saw his opposition as outdated technology in the market. I may have accepted the position if he had said that.

I think even more concerning is the similar lack of clarity about what leaders view as their opposition within the national landscape. Elected leaders seem to increasingly see their competition as those across the aisle within the same body, and it generates the same distractions and divergence that slows progress elsewhere. It fosters blame over accountability, and time and energy are spent focusing on the wrong things. That’s why the rare bipartisan effort to focus on clearly defined opposition, such as poverty, public health, security, etc…, seem so hopeful and refreshing when they do occur. But there seems to be a true dearth of that kind of leadership in both the public and private sectors.

What gives me hope is a recognition that the next generations seem to be uniquely suited to address that dearth of leadership in compelling ways. Being raised in the digital information age, they are well informed and have been exposed to the complexities of the modern world in ways I think current leaders were not. The students I interact with know how to process information and are open to new ideas and experimentation. They tend to dedicate themselves to causes they believe in rather than demonstrate loyalty to an organization, and they exude a self-reliance rather than an expectation that security will be provided for them by their employer. In short, I believe they will be more adept at knowing what their opposition is.

decorative image
“Leadership is born amid opposition. That opposition may stem from any number of sources (e.g., a threat, needed change, or even stagnation), but it remains that leadership exists because something needs to be overcome.”

Bonus Question:  Rumor has it that you once had to console a crying NBA player by reaffirming that he was actually good at basketball. What can you tell us about this experience?
That’s true! My undergraduate degree is in journalism and my first job was writing for the sports page of the local paper. I lived in an NBA town, but only the seasoned reporters got to cover the professional sports, while I was relegated to smaller stories like high school feature articles and amateur events.

But one night I got to fill in for an NBA game. Better yet, it was the first NBA game for a new rookie who had just been drafted after having won the NCAA tournament the previous spring. As a huge college basketball fan, I was thrilled to get to see him play in his first NBA game. However, it didn’t go well for him at all. After hitting his first shot, his veteran teammates kept feeding him the ball and he kept missing badly. He shot so poorly that the opposing team quit guarding him on the perimeter, daring him to shoot. Time and time again his teammates passed him the ball and every time he shot an uncontested airball. Five airballs in a row!

My press credentials served as a locker room pass, so after the game I went in to seek him out, thinking his was the most compelling story of the game. As I approached, I noticed his eyes were watery and red. I asked if I could interview him and he said, “Why interview me? I sucked it up out there!” He was really upset, so I set my recorder aside and sat with him for quite a while. I reminded him that nobody else on the floor that night had an NCAA ring. He told me that the game was just too fast for him at the pro level and I assured him he had all the skill he needed and that the game would slow down for him. It was a surreal moment for me. I think I even put my arm around him. He went on to play nine years in the NBA and is now a college coach, and I always wonder if he remembers our conversation!