Reflections on my experience seeing leadership up close.
Over the course of our careers we have all looked to take the best characteristics of the people we worked for as lessons in leadership. We take those unique examples of leadership and mold them to fit our own emerging leadership style. Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve had the opportunity to reflect on my experiences seeing leadership up close.
Create an environment where people feel good about themselves.
This one leader had a master’s degree in the science of human relationships. “People buy from people” he would tell his sales organizations. He made everyone feel special. He stood in the breach against heartbreak and hurt, always offering an outstretched hand, a warm word, a sympathetic tear. If you were down, he would rush to lift you up. And if you were soaring, he would rush to savor your success. Strong and gracious, comforting and charming, loving and loyal, he was our shield in the face of challenge. The lesson in leadership – create an environment where people feel good about themselves; that they are part of something bigger than themselves.
Moments of truth.
Now, of course, I’ve seen ambition in leaders too. Loads of that. To serve, this one leader had to succeed. To preside, he had to prevail. His sales rallies were legendary. Only he could pull off a sales rally for his organization on the deck of a United States Navy aircraft carrier. He devoted time and attention to the “employee experience” long before that term became fashionable. If you put your employees first, he always said, the sales results will naturally follow. At the close of most days, in spite of the trials and pressures of the day, he would write a personal note and best wishes on the occasion of a birthday, a service anniversary, a big sale or the loss of a loved one. There exist thousands of handwritten notes encouraging or sympathizing or thanking the people in his organization, his customers and friends. The lesson in leadership – every interaction with your staff or customers is a moment of truth. Make it personal. Make it count. Have an impact.
Character over pedigree.
The next lesson is to relate to people from all walks of life. Be empathetic. Look for the good in each person and you’ll usually find it. Know your customers intimately. One such customer was a package delivery company we all know by their brown trucks and delivery drivers in their brown uniforms. This leader wanted to better understand the delivery process and the challenges those drivers faced every day. He convinced the client to let him ride along for an entire day with one of their drivers. On the appointed day, he donned his brown uniform and set out for a day of delivering packages. After an exhausting day on his route, this leader sent a handwritten thank you letter to the driver. The lesson in leadership – value character over pedigree.
Setbacks can strengthen you in the weakest places.
One leader was famous for asking people “how many times did the baseball legend Babe Ruth strike out?” Invariably, no one knew the answer because Babe Ruth was known more for his 714 home run record. Babe Ruth struck out 1,330 times over his career. His point was this – life really begins at the edges of your comfort zone. Stand tall and take a swing at the ball. You’ll be remembered more for your successes than your failures.When this leader lost, he shouldered the blame. He accepted that failure is a part of living a full life but taught us never to be defined by failure. The lesson in leadership – setbacks can strengthen you in the weakest places.
What have I learned?
True leaders do not have a price at which they can be bought; they do not borrow from integrity to pay for expediency; their handshake is an ironclad contract; they are not afraid of risk; they are honest in small matters as they are in large ones; they recognize that serving others enriches the giver’s soul; their ambitions are big enough to include others; they know how to win with grace and lose with dignity; they do not believe that shrewdness and cunning and ruthlessness are the three keys to success; they are occasionally wrong and always willing to admit it. Leadership is not a multiple choice test on the issues. Leadership is making the people feel confident in you. Leadership is setting the tone of compassion and working together with a set of shared values and principles.
The final lesson in leadership I’ll borrow from the poet Maya Angelou:
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
Now I’ll let you in on a little secret. All these stories and lessons come from one man – Ken Foster. I worked for him on and off for many years. He passed away a few weeks ago. He was the most decent and honorable person I ever met. One of nature’s noblemen. His epitaph, perhaps just a single word, loyalty. It was his final lesson. It coursed through his blood. Loyalty to his country, loyalty to his family, loyalty to his friends. Always a friend to his friends.