Stedman Graham has a deep yet quiet voice and a commanding presence, partly due to his stature. A former basketball player, Graham stands about 6-foot-7, and when he strolled into the Fast Company offices the other day and shook my hand, it felt like my hand was disappearing into his broad palm.
Before this meeting, I’d only glimpsed Graham in photographs standing quietly to the side or just behind his life partner, Oprah Winfrey. Her sheer star power might eclipse a lesser human, but in person, Graham presents an air of solid confidence and groundedness that is impossible to miss.
A self-described “thought leader,” the Chicago entrepreneur is accomplished in his own right. He teaches college classes, leads nonprofit organizations, and speaks at conferences all over the world. He’s also the best-selling author of a dozen books, the latest of which, Identity Leadership, was recently published.
Graham’s experiences have informed an approach to teaching leadership in part because he believes our current education system isn’t effectively teaching students how to be leaders. (Forty-four percent of hiring managers surveyed by Payscale agree that college graduates are entering the workforce without leadership skills.)
To this end, Graham is focusing on a new way to develop that skill outside of the classroom. In the book, he details a nine-step road map for individuals to take the reins of their leadership development by becoming more self-aware. “On the internet, you’ve got to ask a question first, but you’ve got to know which questions to ask,” Graham explains. “The beautiful thing about the process,” he says, “is that the process asks the question.”
I sat down with Graham just before the book launch to ask him some questions about his own identity leadership in terms of his career and in the context of his relationship with Winfrey. This is our conversation, lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Fast Company: Do you believe leaders are born or made?
Stedman Graham: Leaders are developed.
FC: Why do you think it’s important to consistently evolve and develop as a leader?
SG: Well, throughout 30 years of being in this work, and being in business, and having all the experiences that I’ve had, I realize that leadership is everything. Without it, you’re all over the place.
That means there’s a lot of work that has to be done. You have to go to the pit to find out who you are. You have to practice it. You have to be skilled at it. You have to love it. You have to live it. And you do it so much more than the other people who are in your field do it, that you become an expert at what you do, and you become an authority in your industry, and you can provide the leadership necessary to lead others because you’ve been able to align all of those things that are relevant to your purpose, your passion, and what you love to do.
FC: Can you talk a little bit about your own journey to develop as a leader?
SG: I grew up in a town called Whitesboro, New Jersey. I was lucky because it was all-African-American town and so I didn’t have to worry about race, or any of that. I really had a fantastic childhood that gave me a lot of emotional strength. I had a good, solid foundation to help me maintain consistency through the most difficult times.
Basketball was kind of my way out, helped give me confidence, and gave me something to focus on. I didn’t understand the value of education like I do today. I didn’t understand how to take information and make it relevant to who I was as a person. So, basically I was growing up without knowing who I was and being labeled. Labels like [athlete], the color of your skin, your family situation–all those that define your existence. So, you’re searching throughout your life to figure out who you are, and how it actually works.
FC: What are some of the difficult times you’ve had to get through?
SG: Difficult times are working for somebody and not knowing exactly what to do. Difficult times would be to navigate through my relationship throughout the year with Oprah, and being defined by my relationship. Difficult times would be being able to run a business, and figure out what kind of business you’re actually going to be in, how does the business work, how your mind ties to business, creating the products, selling, and understanding the value of branding. And then being able to sustain yourself throughout the years, based on not having the skills to be able to do that, but having to learn your own business without a road map, and without the training that’s necessary to build a strong foundation.
FC: Do you believe that you succeeded?
SG: There was a lot of failure. What I did have is the tenacity to get back up. I had to drive to get back up. I refused to quit. And that led me to where I am today, which is kind of my greatest accomplishment. It’s being able to still last, and then come up with a book called Identity Leadership, which is the culmination of all of the things I’ve learned. It’s a platform for my work and my teachings.
Identity leadership is self-leadership based on the philosophy that you can’t lead anybody else until you first lead yourself. And so, self-actualization is what the process teaches people.
FC: Not everyone is good at identifying what their skills and strengths are. What do you recommend as a starting point?
SG: The transformation always begins with love. If you can wade through all of the difficult times–the trauma, the negativity–and you can find love in the core of who you are, then that’s a starting place. That means changing your energy from negative to positive. That means thinking about things you can do, as opposed to what you can’t do. It’s about believing in yourself, knowing that you’re going to make it. It’s about overcoming the obstacles. It’s about building good relationships. It’s about making other people feel good. It’s about being happy with yourself, and comfortable with yourself.
FC: How do you get there?
SG: It’s constant assessment and constantly learning how to empower yourself, how to create strength within yourself, and how to create new habits because you’re changing your consciousness, and you’re making that a part of your unconscious, because that controls you. Nobody teaches you that in school.
You may get a master’s in business administration and miss that piece, and never be able to succeed in business because you don’t even know where to start. You may be in a leadership position and have a big job and not be able to run a successful company because you can’t really even control yourself.
Many times people who are leaders aren’t really passionate about growing their company. They’re passionate about utilizing it as a way to empower themselves for the next job. So, knowing who you are aligns you with the work you actually should be doing. Building skill sets around that will enhance your own core values, which can align with the company’s values, which aligns with the vision of where you want to go. This allows you to put all those things together so you become an effective leader who builds a team that supports that philosophy. Where you find that, you’ll find true success.
FC: Is it ever okay to ask someone else to evaluate you? For example, you said you wouldn’t be who you are without Oprah, because she taught you how to define yourself, and not to let others define you.
SG: To me, being able to build a team of experts and people who know more than you know is imperative. Those become your role models and your mentors. It’s a combination of really focusing on who you want to be, what you want to do, then organizing people around that passion and that purpose, who have the expertise that can help you. That’s also a skill. Like building relationships. And as we know, business is about relationships. People want to do business with other people they like and they care about, and who align with their missions and their passions.
FC: So, you’re saying that if you are aligned within yourself, then you’ll be able to put out the kind of energy that will bring the right people to you, in order to give you those kinds of assessments to checkpoint you as you’re going?
SG: It’s all an alignment issue. Everything needs to be connected. Because you don’t have time to waste on making bad decisions. You might be out of business.
Because the first step is identity, every company should work to figure out who they are and who they’re going to be. What’s your mission going to be? What’s your vision going to be? And then how do you achieve that with the staff and the people around you? How you create opportunities [is] based on having some clarity around what you should be doing. And then, are you able to tweak that? Are you flexible enough to adapt to the marketplace?
FC: One of the things that identity leadership is supposed to also have an impact on is your personal and home life. Being with Oprah has certainly been a factor in defining who you are, yet you’ve also had all these accomplishments. How do you individuate from being cast in a supporting role?
SG: Well, again, I always say, “It’s not how the world defines you.” What I learned through all of this is, it’s how you define yourself. You can’t afford to have somebody else define your existence, because whoever defines you will define you as less than them.
FC: How has this worked in your power dynamic?
SG: It works because I have to be in charge of my own life, based on my own passion, and based on what I love, and based on my purpose in life. You can’t mess with that. That’s not for sale.
I’m on the ground, grassroots. She’s on the air. One of the reasons we get along very well is that we’re doing the same work, and we have the same energy around trying to help people. We just do it differently. She communicates it to the world, through television. She’s one of the greatest communicators in the world.
I love people. I’m on the ground and I want to help the homeless, people who are less fortunate, figure out the structure to solve the problem of homelessness, and help people who are in poverty. She may want to do that, too, but that’s my passion. I love grassroots, and she loves television, so man, that’s a big gap.
FC: Do you see how you might bridge that gap through leadership?
SG: You know, if we felt we could influence hundreds of thousands of people, something might happen. Who knows? But I had to build my own program that’s relevant to who I am. I’m trying to create my own system for success that’s relevant to who I am. I teach all kinds of programs for everybody, because the process is the same for everybody.
I support her 150%, and what makes her happy. So, if it makes her happy, she wants to do it, and I think I can be the rah-rah guy behind it, hey, I’m the rah-rah guy. And so whatever it takes for you to achieve what you want to achieve. If I didn’t have that attitude, how could I help somebody else?
It’s the same kind of sacrifice for me, that I have to be really interested in trying to get you to develop at the highest possible level, for me to be effective. I’m going to show you what I’ve learned to come out on the other side where I can define my existence. And I want you to learn the same thing. This is what this process is about. It is a guideline for performance, and it starts with identity.
FC: In this context, if you had to list three of the most important traits of a leader, what would they be?
SG: Knowing who you are, believing in yourself, and having the drive to see it all through. Those are three necessary prerequisites to get started.