Leading Without Saying a Word

I’ve been reading and thinking a lot lately about authentic leadership and servant-leaders.  It strikes me that much of this good and thoughtful writing gets down to simple but vital lessons learned at your parents’ knee: be sincere, kind, and thoughtful; take people and their concerns seriously; listen and support; do as much as you can to help – in essence, an elongated version of the golden rule. Understanding that one doesn’t need to be a CEO to “lead,” here is a small contribution from my own experience of a former colleague and “leader by example.”

A True Gentleman

I met Scott several years ago when I was responsible for managing the HR side of mergers and acquisitions for our company.  He was the VP of Human Resources for a mid-sized business unit that we were acquiring.  It came to pass that due to redundancies, although Scott was clearly an exemplary HR leader, he and his small team would only be with us on a transitional (9-month) basis. (I know – not exactly visionary staff planning on our part, but that is a story for another day).  Over those nine months, I had the chance to work closely with Scott and his team and found them all to be very fine people, taking their cues in the best sense of the word from Scott, who was admired as a true gentleman (and, not incidentally, a highly-skilled HR and OD leader, as well).

A Special Dinner

As the end of the transition approached, I arranged to fly out to the west coast (I was based in Florida and Scott and his team were in southern California) for a few days of wrap-up meetings.  Knowing that this would probably be my final visit before the team dispersed, we set up a farewell dinner one evening while I was there.  It was a warm affair — an evening of nice food, good conversation, and fellowship. Despite the fact that they were being laid-off, the company had provided generous severance and retention packages and all concerned were looking forward to new opportunities, retirement travel, or the like, without any bitterness or regret.

At the end of the evening, I presented each person with gifts on behalf of our company, in appreciation for their hard work and fine service during the transition period.  The main gift to Scott was a framed copy of our company’s “team principles” statement, signed by our president and other executives.  Looking back now, it may seem somewhat of an odd gift – i.e., giving someone who is being laid off a memento of the principles of the organization that is laying him off.  True to form, though, Scott took it in exactly the spirit it was meant – that is, an implicit thanks to him for embodying on a daily basis during difficult times exactly the team principles we aspired to.  He was touched by the gift and the respect and kindnesses shown to his team that evening, and was very appreciative.

A Wordless Lesson

While all of the above is a pleasant story, it’s not the part that has caused me to remember that evening these many years later.  That part came the following morning.  We all left the restaurant about 10 pm that evening, with Scott heading off to a one-hour drive home — making for a late evening and quick turn-around for him, as I was  scheduled to be back in his office the first thing the next morning, for our final wrap-up meeting.  As I entered his office that next morning, I noticed something new on his wall: the framed plaque that we had given him less than ten hours earlier.

It’s a small and subtle thing, perhaps.  However, I’ll always think of his hanging that plaque in time for me to see it in the morning as one of the finest examples of thoughtfulness and appreciation that I’ve ever seen.  Without a word, he told me (and my firm) that he appreciated the thought.  It was an incredibly small detail, but one that spoke volumes.  That is just how he conducted himself – and that is why his team and those around him would move heaven and earth for him.

One can lead without saying a word.  Indeed.

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