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A Shout Out to the Great but Unrecognized Leaders

I’m on the phone with one of my long-term clients. He’s about to leave his current CFO position for one at another company.This will be the third round for our partnership. As he prepares for the new gig he is doing his usual self-flagellation.

“I worked harder in the past six years than any other job I’ve had but I feel like I’m leaving as a failure. Sure, I learned a lot, got the company ready for the IPO, successfully navigated us out of some complicated SEC issues, did several deals, improved our financial reporting systems. But I don’t think I was an effective leader of the finance team. I feel like I neglected so many basic things that I know I excel at. I’m great at the people stuff and pulling a team together and being accessible but tough. I didn’t do much of that in this job. What the hell happened to me?”

Known for my straightforward manner I replied, “You’re right. You screwed up with the team stuff. We both know this is a huge strength of yours but you never made it a priority. But here’s my take on why that happened. You’ve had two CEOs during this time. With the first one you spent four years on airplanes exploring deals all over the globe. You were at his side supporting his agenda and getting loads of kudos from the board for doing just that. The company goes public, the new CEO comes in and your world does a 180. You adapted to the new guy but now you are spending all your time with investors and auditors and regulators and the new board. You already work 14 hours a day. Something had to fall off the plate. I guess it was your team. But this doesn’t make you a failure. It just makes you human.”

And this guy is a superstar. He was identified early in his career as a high potential and was groomed for big jobs. He has a knack for speaking plainly about highly technical financial issues and is unusually extroverted for a numbers guy. People love working for him because he listens and engages them. He is tough minded and focused and has received high praise over the past 20 years.

So why is such an accomplished person feeling like crap? Because the realities of day-to-day leadership make it impossible to achieve some ideal that we impose on ourselves and that is reinforced by every business book we read or seminar we attend.

In the real world there are scores of good leaders who are doing tons of the right things every day to lead their people and their enterprises to success. But they are imperfect; often too brash or too passive, too controlling or too ambivalent, too detailed or too unrealistic. But still they are solid and respected leaders.

The disconnect between high ideals and reality is big and self-defeating and painful. And there are more leaders out there like my CFO buddy than like…fill in your favorite role model. But books are written about the legendary leaders not the everyday folks. And performance reviews are written as if you are supposed to excel at all 25 leadership competencies. And the Harvard business cases describe successful solutions to knotty problems but don’t write about the small everyday wins with ordinary issues. And the consultants tell you the three easy steps to move from the lower left hand quadrant to the upper right hand one as if you could just snap your fingers and be there.

The whole point of this blog is to hail the good-but-unheralded leaders. Most of you are like this CFO; quite good at your job and doing most of the right things most of the time. Consider yourself cheered and congratulated.

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