“I want to talk to you about one of your daily thoughts,” Paddy announced as he set two cups of coffee on the table in front of us.
“OK,” I said, “which one?”
“It was a while back,” Paddy said, “and was about leadership.”
He took a scrap of paper from his pocket, adjusted his glasses and read: If you can’t lead yourself you’ll never be able to lead others.
“So?” I prompted.
“Well,” Paddy said, “it got me to thinking. You dealt with a lot of great leaders in many fields during your working days. What exactly do you mean by ‘lead yourself?’ ”
“Yes,” I acknowledged, “I was fortunate to know a lot of great leaders in, as you put it, many fields.”
“Fine,” Paddy said with a hint of annoyance, “but what about that ‘lead yourself’ stuff?”
“I guess that was a bit subtle,” I acknowledged. “What I meant was that if you can’t discipline yourself to develop and consistently display the characteristics of a leader you will never be one.”
“What’s the best way to identify a leader?” Paddy asked.
“Look around and see if anyone is following,” I replied.
“That’s just a smart ass reply,” snarled Paddy.
“No, it’s not,” I said. “Here’s what I mean. Let’s suppose you’re wondering whether someone, let’s call him Tim, is a leader. Watch Tim’s performance over a period of time and you will see whether people pay attention to what he says and does, whether he’s approachable and easy to talk to, and whether he always gives the impression that he has lots of time to spare for others.
“Another sign of having followers would be whether people gravitate to him because he keeps cool in emergencies. If ‘yes’ is the answer to all of these implied questions you can be assured that Tim has the self-discipline I referred to, and, more importantly, that he has followers, which make him a leader regardless of where he might be in any official pecking order.”
“Now, when you talk about keeping cool in emergencies,” Paddy said, “I don’t imagine you’re just talking about the building being on fire. Can you give me an example?”
“Sure,” I said. “Back in the early days of my public accounting career I was a member of a team of about a dozen or so people who serviced our office’s biggest client. There had been a couple of major screw-ups and the managing partner of the office had been warned that we were in grave danger of losing the client.
“The partner in charge of the account, a fellow by the name of David Timbrell, assembled all of us in the firm’s conference room to discuss the situation. Instead of assigning blame or complaining about the situation he calmly outlined the problem, asked each and every one of us for our input, and then gave the more senior of us clear assignments to carry out during what was to be a sustained effort to retain this very important account.
“He then called the CEO of the client and, with all of us still in the room, outlined in detail what the firm intended to do about the problem, told him who at our end was responsible for various components of the plan, and what our deadlines were. There’s no doubt in my mind that his calm and effective leadership is the reason we were successful in keeping the client.”
“So,” said Paddy, “he remained calm in an emergency, but what other important leadership qualities did he exhibit?”
“He wasn’t the managing partner of the firm,” I responded, “so his being put in charge of solving this problem demonstrated that leadership is action, not title or position. Another thing, not for a moment during the meeting, which lasted about six hours, did he ever show signs of being discouraged, which rubbed off on all of us and cleared the way to think positively and analytically rather than negatively and defensively. Great leaders are not easily discouraged and don’t show it even if they are.”
“Also,” I went on “the effective delegation of responsibility is another earmark of true leadership, and for the delegation to be effective a real leader must let people know that he trusts them. He did this by assigning specific responsibilities and goals to each of us. Also, he didn’t get into micromanaging how we were to do things; he simply told us clearly the result he wanted. Then, as I mentioned, he told the client’s CEO who was responsible for each task, another indication that he didn’t feel he had to control everything all the time.”
“Did you keep the client?” Paddy asked.
“Yes,” I replied, “and I think that could be traced directly to the great leadership shown during that meeting.”
“One more question,” Paddy said, “in a team situation is there a sure-fire method of determining who the leader should be?”
“Yes,” I assured him, and then asked, “Who should play lead guitar in the band, Paddy?”
“Well, the person who can play lead guitar of course,” Paddy replied.
“You got it,” I said as I shrugged into my jacket and left.