image of a foam coffee cup with brown outer sleeveDeveloping as a leader is a process punctuated by occasional events that test our progression and our character.

Everything else is just practice.

I had an interesting discussion with a long retired former executive just a few months before his passing. You would have to read a mountain of leadership books to soak up the wisdom he shared during our brief discussion. While my memory and notes are imperfect, I attempt to capture his points below.

The backstory on my relationship with this executive is that I had the good fortune very early in my career to work in his organization. The collective memory of those who worked with him is that he was one of those individuals who seemed to always understand the impact his words and actions had on others. He was deliberate in his dealings with every individual and group. He listened carefully, commented thoughtfully and was never afraid to acknowledge great ideas or that he was not certain of the answer. He used questions artfully and worked hard to dispense credit, praise and coaching. And he was approachable. Most of all, I remember how willing he was to listen and help. His help usually came in the form of questions that left one thinking and ultimately pointed to an answer.

Imagine my surprise during our last conversation when he remarked, “In my mind, there were only a few times in my career, where I actually led. Everything else was just practice.”

Naturally, I asked him what he meant by this. While I paraphrase due to an imperfect memory and difficult to decipher notes, here’s the essence of what he said:

On his role:

My job was always to bring out the best in people. I can count on one hand the number of times I had to step up and take charge. Instead, I helped people learn to think and act for themselves and with others.

On understanding what leadership is: 

We make this idea of leadership sound too hard and mystical. In my mind, it is simply about choosing people of good character, providing them with an important goal and then doing everything possible to help them reach that goal.

On developing as a leader:

The wonderful thing about the role of guiding others is that every day you have a chance to practice the good habits that will be essential to your survival and success during difficult times. And mostly, you teach others not by doing, but by empowering.

On mistakes:

(He laughed when I asked about this.) I made so many mistakes, mostly of the human kind…ego, pride and hubris, that I am amazed that I was not fired by my bossees or my teams. Fortunately, I had surrounded myself with people who had no trouble telling me I had no clothes. They always brought me back to center, sometimes with a metaphorical 2”x4” (board) over the head. The only fatal mistake someone in a leadership role can make is to believe they are incapable of making mistakes.

On the difference between leading and managing:

That is a nonsensical debate that is not worth taking time to explore. Both are important toolsets and behaviors. It’s not one or the other—they are both important.

On the moments when he believes he stepped up to lead:

They were always crises where I felt it was my responsibility to be the first in line to take a hit. I recall thinking at the time of one situation that the only reason I was there was to help save the situation for the good people around me. I made some tough decisions—a few of which hurt some people in my attempt to work for the greater good. When I look at it in the rear-view mirror, the best thing I did to help us survive that situation was to encourage and support and stay the heck out of the way of people much better equipped for the fight.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

What I suspect he never would have admitted or acknowledged was that the people around him would have marched into hell for him because of how he had treated them. While he was humble about leading and practicing, he exhibited the behaviors of a great albeit imperfect leader every single day. He practiced for a lifetime and it showed.

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Art Petty serves senior executives and management teams as a performance coach and strategy facilitator. Art is a popular keynote speaker focusing on helping professionals and organizations learn to survive and thrive in an era of change. Additionally, Art’s books are widely used in leadership development programs. To learn more or discuss a challenge, contact Art.

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