I received an email last week from the chief of police; someone whose leadership I admire. He sent the following: “A leader is a person who influences others by example. Chinese philosopher Lao-Tzu recognized this characteristic of a leader in the sixth century B.C. when he wrote:
To lead people, walk beside them...
As for the best leaders, the people do not notice their existence.
The next best, the people honor and praise.
The next, the people fear; and the next, the people hate...
When the best leader's work is done the people say, 'We did it ourselves!'”
This quote is one that is easy to agree with, but challenging to carry out. How is a leader invisible, yet effective? How does a leader actually lead, but lead in such a way that people feel responsible and excited for the successes?
This type of leadership takes on a different personification than we may expect. Certainly we want our leaders to also be our friend (walking beside us), certainly we want them to have the “cool factor” where we enjoy the culture and working environment (and we honor and praise them). We don’t want to be riddled with fear, our actions and ideas stifled by the distress of making a mistake and the repercussions that come along with it. We don’t want a leader we can’t trust. One who doesn’t stick to their word, or one that carries out actions in an unethical and conniving way (that people begin to hate).
I’d like you to meet John. John is one of the greatest leaders I’ve ever known. His leadership is “good” because of what John does: John has to lead by example, he has to have vision, he has to work hard. However, John is one of the best because of how he does it. Why?
Quite simply it lies in his expectations of people. John makes people believe they did it themselves because he sets the bar so high people question their ability to reach it. Then he digs in and pushes them to the breaking point (but doesn’t break them). John does not tolerate ego, laziness or showboating. He rewards improvement (small or big), risk and trust. John knows the people he is leading. He knows when to coach big picture technique and build a strong foundation. He knows when his people are ready for the meticulous details and he will pick apart every aspect of their work. He holds people accountable for their choices and he misses nothing.
When one of John’s athletes walks up to a barbell loaded with a weight they’ve never moved before, John already knows if they will achieve the lift. He reads their attitude their will, and the hunger in their eyes. When that bar goes up and moves effortlessly to the place it is supposed to go, John does not turn around and high five himself. John celebrates the athlete. Congratulates them. The athlete walks away proud because they did it themselves.
And if the athlete misses the lift? John takes on that failure as his own. He thinks about ways to better coach the technique, to better get into that person’s head and push them. He doesn’t place blame and he doesn’t tolerate anyone being a sore loser. John teaches people to fall down and get right back up.
The best kind of leader doesn’t look like we would first imagine. They aren’t all roses all the time; sometimes they’re way out in the weeds. They don’t tell us what we want to hear, in fact, they are incredibly good at telling us what we don’t want to hear and then walking with us as we find our way past the weakness. They tell us we are going to do things we are afraid to do.
The best leaders: people may not notice their existence. That is by design. For the best leaders know other people’s success does not take away from their own, but rather other people’s success is their own.
John Brown and his wife Kelly own CrossFit Agoge in Montrose.
Chelsea Rosty is the executive director of the Montrose Chamber of Commerce and director of Business Innovation for the City of Montrose. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.