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Someone near and dear to me recently retired. After 40 years of steadily moving up in his chosen field he is ready to kick back. While I was congratulating him on a long and productive career it reminded me of my recent post about understated leaders. I’ve had the good fortune of having many discussions over the years with him about leadership. Here are some of the things I learned from him that I directly applied to my work with other leaders.

As a leader you must:

  • Really listen to your people and then get down to the crux of the issue. Whether the conversation is about the employee’s career aspirations or key initiatives or the office environment…hear what people are saying and respond incisively. Spend time with your staff, provide regular guidance, help them grow and demonstrate that you care. As much time as he spent getting the rest of his job done he spent nearly as much time with his people and his professional network. He felt very strongly about this.
  • Be yourself. If you are an asshole, find a way to use that effectively for good. If you are more measured, use that to your advantage. There is no one size fits all for effective leadership.
  • Sometimes do nothing. I can’t tell you the number of stories I heard over the years where the best outcomes came from not jumping in. He said sometimes not giving it energy/getting hysterical can make what seems like a big deal just a little blip. Other times it forces those who really need to resolve an issue without his intervention find their own way. This lesson had a huge impact on my own development. And for the record, if this guy did nothing and it was the wrong calculation, bad things could happen. I mean, serious global impact.
  • Find something to admire and respect about each boss you have. Focus on your own job and why you chose your path and don’t waste energy bitching about the boss. They come and go so you better know what you want to accomplish.
  • Also be a good manager. In his mind there isn’t the separation that the business books chatter about. If you are not effective as a manager (making sense of the operation, creating efficiencies, understanding how all the parts work together, making sure that the right people are in the right positions , conducting performance reviews etc.) then it is hard to gain credibility as a leader. Earlier in his career he noticed a huge vacuum of good management practices. By deciding to fill that void for staff after staff (without the benefit of organization sponsored training) he was seen by others as a leader. It was that dynamic combination of steady and simplified management and understated leadership that gained him a fervent following. Employees requested to be relocated to whatever country he was in and the most senior people sought out his counsel up to the day he walked out the door.
  • Be more interested in other people and the issues at hand than about yourself. Ultimately I think this was the primary reason for his success (along with being very smart!). Throughout his career he was required to navigate through highly conflictual situations with lots of big egos and posturing. This leader was the calming force in the midst of the turmoil and he was able, many times, to get the players to rationally focus on the issues rather than on their own reputations.

If you have one of these role models in your life, spend time finding out how they tick. Learn about how they view their leadership responsibilities and why they do what they do. If you don’t know anyone like this, that is very sad. It is very valuable to learn some great leadership tips from someone who cares more about the success of her people than her own rising star.

And PS. These leaders may not end up as the CEO but they certainly do rise to the top. It’s just not always visible or loud. But if you ask an organization who the most respected person is, this understated leader is near the top of the list. Although my friend is certain that he has installed many capable people to take over, I suspect his absence will be felt. And that he will still be on speed dial for wise guidance.

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