At a recent retreat, our divisional management team focused on the support and growth of leaders among our staff. Leadership comes in many forms. We all know of the stereotypical alpha male, Type A personalities who have been celebrated as leaders on Wall Street as well as in the movies, the halls of Congress, business, the tech sector, and the military. These are the types who bark out orders and expect others to follow. These are the “born leaders.” Or so they say.
But there is another type of leadership that is usually—in my experience—much more effective. It generally comes from people who learn to be leaders, rather than assume they know it all from birth. I put more stock in these types of leaders in part because I am reminded of the tale of a group of tourists visiting a rural, picturesque village. They walked by an old man sitting beside a fence and in a rather patronizing way, one tourist asked, “Were any great men or women born in this village?” “Nope” the old man replied. “Only babies.”
This type of leadership is resolute, but not rude. Humble, but not timid. Proud, but not arrogant. Humorous, but without folly. Optimistic, but not reckless.
That last trait is one I personally cherish in leaders. The good ones can look at any situation and, without being pollyannaish, find the path forward … the good in the person … the way to get everyone to make the right choice. All leaders face difficult obstacles, but the good ones handle them with grace and equanimity, showing all of us how leaders direct change.
Plus, true leaders don’t whine! George Bernard Shaw said, “The true joy in life is to be a force of fortune instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.” True leaders are a force of fortune.
Jim Collins, in his classic Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap … and Others Don’t, took on this question of leadership in describing the Level 5 Executive—his term for those with the highest level of executive capabilities. Collins notes that top leaders build greatness through a “paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will.” They are ambitious, but their ambition is “first and foremost for the institution, not themselves.” In the social sector, Collins notes that power is often much more diffuse than in business, but the power to get things done exists nonetheless, if you know where to find it. “There is the power of inclusion, and the power of language, and the power of shared interests, and the power of coalition.”
Some of the most powerful leaders I’ve known have unassuming exteriors and yet their interior lives and values are exemplary. Let me anthropomorphize a building that I saw in Rome while on sabbatical in 2016 as an example: San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane (Saint Charles at the Four Fountains). This church’s design – a masterpiece of architect Francesco Borramini – is both “extraordinary and complex.” The exterior/interior relationship is best described by architect Daniel Solomon in his Bedside Essays for Lovers (of Cities):
“Borromini was eclipsed for much of his career by the flashier and more charismatic Gian Lorenzo Bernini, and his oeuvre are mostly second-tier commissions – smallish buildings on undistinguished city sites. His greatness is built on surmounting the contradictory demands of these commissions – simultaneous city fabric and monument. Second-tier commissions produced some of the most complex and subtle works of the Western canon…
Never have the ordinary and the extraordinary been reconciled with more sublime elegance than at San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane. Its interior is nothing less than a three-dimensional cosmological map depicting in its intricate geometries and its filtration of light the relationship of heaven and earth. But the sanctuary of San Carlo sits on an unremarkable street corner on the consistent street frontage of via Quirinale, leading to the magnificence of Palazzo Quirinale and Piazza Quirinale a couple of blocks up the street. Mediating between the glories of the interior and the important but subservient role of the exterior is a subtly undulating wall, true to the demands of both inside and out. In this most complex of mediations, Borromini leaves the enduring lesson of how to be both a humble city builder and an architect of thundering power.”
I have worked with individuals who eschew the flashy exterior, content to be seen as partners with others in a larger, complex whole. But their work, values, and legacy show amazing interior depth. Max DePree is the retired CEO of the furniture and design pacesetter Herman Miller, and through the years I’ve come to appreciate his definition of leadership. DePree says:
“The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between, the leader is a servant.”
In almost every station of life, there exists a potential leadership component. You may be leading an organization, a division, a department, an office, a project team, an intern, a business, a family, or a group of friends. Whatever your role, leaders need to be good at recognizing and defining reality. Saying thank you is acknowledgement that you don’t do these jobs alone. A servant leadership suggests you are there to help others grow and realize their full potential.
Jim Collins says that great lives result from having meaningful work. Real leaders can help us get there.
Have a good week.
More to come…