In the Spring of 1999 I began a concerted effort to understand leadership. My investigation began with a commitment to interview as many successful leaders as a I could. This past weekend, while attending the wedding of a dear friend, I ran into an old acquaintance named Barry. Barry was the very first person I ever interviewed in my effort to understand leadership. Barry has positively influenced literally thousands of people with his work. He has spent his life not only building a successful business but also using that business to make the lives of others more fulfilling.
Barry is a wise and powerful leader, so much so that I easily remember the details of the day—and its leadership lessons—I spent with him 16 years ago.
1. I Asked for One But He Gave Me Eight
When I called Barry’s office to see if I could interview him, I asked for an hour of his time. Instead he gave me eight. We started and stopped our conversation many times as he went about the day’s activities. At the end of the day, he even invited me to dinner with himself and his son. Barry gave me far more than I asked for and to this day, I remember it. Time and again when I ask people about the best leaders they've ever followed, they talk about the investment of time made in them by generous leaders such as Barry.
2. Development by Hanging Around
By letting me hang around for so long, Barry wasn’t merely giving me information. He was giving me a window into his life as a leader. As I reflect on the best leaders I’ve ever worked for, they did the same. They invited me into meetings that my title and pay grade didn’t warrant. They discussed topics with me in which I had no previous experience. They shared information with me to which I would normally have no access. They didn’t lord their position over me; they shared it with me. By letting me hang around, they developed me.
3. Shooting Me Straight
At the time I met with Barry, I was long on vigor and short on leadership wisdom and knowledge. My passion for leadership was newly minted but that didn’t stop me from making bold statements about what I wanted to accomplish. In my zest for launching into leadership development—and despite my inexperience—I was talking far more than listening. Barry called me on it.
At one point in the day he said to me, “I think you need to talk less and listen more.” I remember being stunned by the starkness of the comment. I also knew that he was right. (And he still is, if I’m being honest.)
I knew that Barry cared about me, so his seemingly blunt feedback was accepted. He wasn’t putting me down. He was being straight with me. And he was doing it for my benefit.
4. Cleaning Off Someone Else’s Desk
Much of my conversation with Barry that day centered around the idea that the best leaders have a servant’s attitude toward their followers. As I sought to unpack what that looks like in real life, Barry described it in the most practical of terms. He said, “The best leaders reserve five minutes a day to clean off someone else’s desk.” The simplicity of that statement has stuck with me. Effective leadership that brings the best out in followers doesn’t stem from complex organizational development strategies. It lives first in the attitude of the leader, in the willingness to literally take five minutes a day to help others in ways not required by the leader's role or title. What would happen if every leader in an organization took this five-minute-desk-clearing idea to heart?
One More Lesson From Barry
When I saw Barry at the wedding, it was a full-circle moment for me. I’m on the cusp of releasing a book that articulates the leadership lessons and research I’ve been a part of over the last 16 years. And there I was in the presence of the very first leader I ever interviewed.
As Barry was walking toward his car, I caught up with him. I reminded him of his generosity with me those many years ago and thanked him for helping launch me on the path I walk today. He was, of course, gracious. He put his hand on my shoulder and on the spot, there in the parking lot, prayed for me. In that moment, Barry was fully present and personally investing himself in someone else's life. It was yet another leadership lesson from Barry worth remembering. And I will, even another 16 years from now.
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