What does successful leadership really look like? I rather think it has many faces but mostly, leadership is successful when the people you interact with every day find ways to tell you it is. The following is a story I wrote a couple of years ago. It profiles someone who might not have been touted as a “high profile” leader but nonetheless had a very positive impact on those who were lucky enough to know him and experience his influence. To me, that’s what leadership is all about.
The other evening I attended a retirement celebration for a former colleague. It was a wonderful gathering, a room packed full of people who were there because they genuinely liked and respected the man who was about to embark on the next phase of his life.
In his business career, the man did not rise to the top of the executive ladder. Nor, I would hazard to say, did he make lots of money or enjoy an opulent lifestyle. He may not even be widely known to people much beyond his immediate sphere of influence. But his impact has been felt. He is successful. He is a leader.
Throughout the course of the evening, many people got up to speak.
His bosses praised his leadership in community activities; his ability to galvanize his local workforce; and his good humour and cheerful disposition. Those bosses, who were younger than he, thanked him for his guidance and mentorship.
His colleagues spoke about lifelong friendship; told stories of the fun they had together and how they all managed to work hard in spite of their youthful exuberance.
His staff thanked him for his support and guidance. While they were happy for him as he moved on to other things, they were sad too, as they told their own stories of meeting challenges together; overcoming obstacles; achieving goals; and yes, having fun all along the way.
His sons told stories of their life as they grew up. The stories were witty and poignant and full of pride. They were two young men who had grown up to be fine, funny and thoughtful, two young men who thanked their parents for giving them a good start in life.
When it was his turn, the man did not talk about his accomplishments at all. Instead, he spoke with pride about the accomplishments of others, especially his children. He talked about the constant love and support he received from his wife. He talked about what he had learned over the course of his career and from whom. He made many self-deprecating remarks. And he said thank you…a lot.
Much has been written about the characteristics of successful leadership and while I certainly think there are core elements associated with it, there are other lessons in there somewhere. Like:
Successful Leadership is not formulaic. It is open to interpretation and it requires the involvement of the whole self.
For instance, while we know that good communication is key to good leadership, how we communicate to get the desired result will vary depending on the leader. The man was successful because he did not pretend to be anyone else. His communication style included fun, laughter and humility. It worked for him simply because it is who he is.
Successful Leadership is more about love than we would like to admit.
Okay, I can feel people cringing as they read this because injecting the word love into a business environment starts to feel a bit, um, ethereal. But, there are all kinds of love…love of challenge; love of ideas; love of people; love of good honest work. And, it is this love that carries successful leaders through thick and thin.
At this retirement party there was indeed love, and respect, for the man who for thirty-five years, took all of himself with him wherever he went.
So, imagine your own retirement party. What do you want people to say about you? What kind of memories do you want to have? What do you want to give? What will it take for you to get what you want?
Think about it. And, if you feel so inclined, I’d love to hear what you come up with.