True leadership might not look like what we see in the movies. It might be the small actions you take every day.
“I don’t have executive presence,” a beloved coaching client told me. “I’m not slick.”
This client, with 20 years’ experience in his highly technical field, was preparing for a round of interviews for an internal promotion. If he lands it, he will join his company’s executive ranks.
“Tell me about your leadership style,” I suggested.
He paused. “I try to lead by example,” he said.
“How do you know?” I asked.
“Maybe this isn’t a big story, but recently one of my junior staff was working very hard, and needing to work into the evening,” he told me. “I was exhausted, but I stayed. I wasn’t going to clock out while my direct report worked into the night.”
I got teary listening to this matter-of-fact man describe his love and care for his employees.
“I made sure he knew I was there and available to help,” he said. “He just didn’t have to know I was playing solitaire on my computer.”
I thought of “The Captain Class, A New Theory of Leadership,” by Sam Walker, a highly readable and researched study of the single “crucial ingredient in a team that achieves and sustains historic greatness.” (There’s an anecdote about a rugby captain who played through an impressive injury that you can’t unread on page 46.)
Turns out, that ingredient is not the superstar on the team or the coaching or the money or the infrastructure.
It’s the captain.
“He was a guy you could walk over broken glass for, because he just had that manner about him,” a New Zealand rugby player said of his captain.
“… Most people believe that the leader of a team is the person who does something spectacular when the chips are down. … The captains in this book suggest we’ve got the picture backward,” writes Walker, the founding editor of The Wall Street Journal’s sports section.
“The great captains lowered themselves in relation to the group whenever possible in order to earn the moral authority to drive them forward in tough moments. The person at the back, feeding the ball to others, may look like a servant. … The easiest way to lead, it turns out, is to serve.”
My client may not be slick. But I would bet his employees would walk over (metaphorical) broken glass for him.
“OK, maybe I have my own style of executive presence,” he mused, as we finished up the interview prep.