Good leaders make people feel that they’re at the very heart of things, not at the periphery. (Warren G. Bennis)
I’ve worked with some exemplary leaders in a variety of organizations and workplaces throughout the decades but my most recent leader is the most accomplished and humanistic I have known. I dedicate this post to her.
While I have worked with leaders who have been reasonably competent and conscientious, as well as others who have been very caring and empathetic, I have never worked with a management professional who fuses these two sides so seamlessly—in such a steady and sustained way. This leader is, in the words of another ardent admirer, a “rock star!”
As an administrator charged with the heady task of maximizing human potential over time, her success is all the more admirable and trickier to sustain. Unlike business or other organizational structures in which such things as quarterly sales or shareholder return are readily quantified and easily compared, all measures of human capacity building are value-laden and subjective. Any tests of human progress are quasi-empirical at best, and must ultimately pass the steeper challenge of purpose, value and relevance. What is the effect on more than three hundred diverse and dynamic human lives? After great investments of time, money, and effort, will the chosen goals have been the most relevent, timely, and worthwhile?
These are the often life-determining questions my leader and colleagues grapple with each day—very often in the evening, on the weekend, and over the holidays.
Although I only worked with this leader part-time, I am fortunate to have had a tiny foothold– a place to belong and serve as new opportunities emerge.
So what is it that inspired me to take two buses, a ferry, and a carpool to work in a setting where systemic challenges sometimes overshadow the many small delights?
More than anything else, it is my leader, the “rock star” with personal qualities and a professional skill set that touch minds, hearts, and souls in the most profound and inspirational ways.
In keeping with the best research, this leader has the qualities of the most successful parents and teachers. She maintains the highest expectations and exudes the highest levels of warmth and approval possible. She envisions my colleagues and our clients reaching a level we may not always dream is possible and is extremely responsive to the needs of the wider community we serve.
She articulates in words and body language her belief in each person as an individual and as part of a collective that is greater than the sum of its parts. She draws upon her own life example, believing in who we may become with sustained effort and, at times, gruelling hard work. She uses faith-filled restorative practices when we fall short.
Unlike an apathetic or burned out counterpart, she works hard and is highly visible. You always know where she is. Unlike otherwise well-intended leaders who may lack awareness, insight, vision, temperament, tenacity, or be ill-suited to the role, she has extensive awareness and deep understanding. Even more important than knowing physically where she is, on the most important issues, we know exactly where she stands. Amazingly, this highly visible and ever-present leader is the most steadfast general, the most energetic cheerleader, and the most compassionate and authentic human being.
Whenever possible, this leader chooses love-based faith in people’s inherent goodness over short-sighted and fear-based accountability. She knows, as research shows compellingly, that most employees will forego raises and other job opportunities to stay in a workplace where there is challenge, autonomy, and trust in management. Most importantly, she believes deeply in the natural human capacity to grow, excel, and give meaningfully in a supportive and nurturing environment. What is good for clients is equally good for colleagues.
In keeping with the quotation at the top of this post, this leader knows the long-term benefits of grassroots excitement—a shared commitment to a transcendent cause that captivates minds, hearts, and souls. Despite the ever-pressing demands of ill-fitting tops-down initiatives that often result in mediocrity due to unnecessary control, compliance, and conformity, this leader champions staff who respond to authentic human need and “go where the energy is.” Wisely, this leader clears unnecessary obstacles, reduces strangle-holds of red-tape, and minimizes regulation that do not leverage, lighten, or enlighten. In just three words, “She gets it.”
What, specifically, does this most impressive leader do? She listens actively, hears compassionately, deliberates deeply, chooses wisely, implements slowly, and responds decisively. She welcomes feedback, shares success, and expands the spotlight to its broadest and most inclusive dimensions.
She is, of course, the master of the “touch back”–resolving problems and fulfilling pledges. Athletic and fit, her energetic “touch backs” ensure “touchdowns” instead of the mumbling and grumbling that result from fumbled footballs.
What else does this leader do? She takes full responsibility for setbacks, re-frames problems as creative challenges, and handles resistance or “pushback” thoughtfully–knowing that it is better for a team to resist or challenge the leader than to turn upon one another.
While I continue to find inspirational mentors in colleagues and clients of all ages and I have always believed the adage that “true leaders lead from any chair,” it is an especially rare and wonderful thing when a wise and deeply rooted leader occupies the decision-making chair.
A great leader inspires confidence. She is the one that we choose to emulate and follow. As expressed in the old Afghan proverb, “If you think you’re leading and no one is following you, then you’re only taking a walk.”
How refreshing when a leader “walks the talk” with competence and care. She steps with sure-footed confidence and blazes a trail to an unknown future destination that many others do not see but still deeply need and long to go.
While this leader now prepares for her pending retirement at the end of this calendar year and I have now moved on to the most exciting challenges of my career and life ever, I am pleased and proud to call her a friend that I take with me in heart and mind wherever I go.