Sooner or later it happens if you decorate enough Christmas trees. At some point you discover that almost all of the ornaments are handmade or have some special meaning. Discarded are those generic, store bought ones that looked pleasing to the eye but had no short cut to the heart. The special ones all have stories attached; the store bought ones just have hooks.
The annual winter holiday celebration—whether it is Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa or Eid Al Adha—reminds us of a season of generosity. Almost all faiths share the power of remembering what makes us unique; affirming what we have in common. All are celebrations involving gifts, lights, decorations, stories and collective moments of friendship. What if leadership was patterned after a treasured ornament on a holiday tree?
Great leadership is authentic
I recently worked with a client who claimed he was exhausted from trying to find the latest gimmick, coolest trick or slickest tactic to guide his leadership practices. “Management by best-seller,” he said, “Is getting in the way of my being me.” Now, don’t get me wrong. As an author, I am a champion of reading great works. But, just like store-bought glitz can get in the way of genuine people-serving-people, it is vital we remember that leadership is about influencing and inspiring. When we seek to be who we are not—that is, to look good, smart, astute and in-charge, we assume our associates are unable to see us as a wanna-be rather than a real person deeply committed to the mission and those who accomplish that mission.
Great leadership is connection
The prized ornaments are generally not the most expensive or the most attractive. They are the ones that touch our hearts. And, the substance of that bond is the shared stories behind them. Great leadership is about connecting with an emotional narrative, not just rational instruction. Great leaders seek forums for communication that have the warmth of a campfire, the clarity of a wedding, and the inspiration of a revival. Successful meetings light fires and stoke enthusiasm instead of just fulfilling a functional requirement. Valuable conversations sparkle with hope, vision and encouragement. And, a key feature of connection is actual presence. “You can pretend to care,” wrote author Tex Bender, “but you can’t pretend to be there.”
Great leadership is substance
My first Christmas as a married adult was very special. A friend who owned a nearby farm let me select and cut my own tree. I crafted a sturdy stand; the tree was decorated, and colorful gifts were placed under the bottom branches. But, after a few days, the tree’s needles began to fall off and the tree started turning brown. I had forgotten to fashion a way for the tree to sit in a container of water. Leadership is not just about outcomes and short term profits. It is about fostering tenacity and stamina. And, that takes leaders willing to mentor and provide growth-creating opportunities. We live in challenging times requiring all employees to do more with less. Today’s leaders must nurture through encouragement, support and valued partnership.
Leadership is Personal
All holiday trees are unique. They reflect the personality of those in charge of the tree decorations. Every year the star that is hung on top of our Christmas tree is one we bought the year our son was born. His name is engraved on the gold star. Leaders treat their associates like stars. But, more than general affirmation, great leadership is monogrammed; it seeks to treat each person as the unique creation he or she is. It celebrates in ways that are customized to the person. A client of mine, new to his role as the CEO of a high-tech company, envisioned a year-end recognition banquet complete with banners, banter and brass band. But early in the planning stage he halted the affair when he learned from a candid associate that smaller, more intimate gatherings for recognition were preferred, not one that embarrassed engineers in a large public setting.
Leadership is Vibrant
Why do we drive through the neighborhood looking at holiday decorations? Because they convey a heart-warming vibrancy. “There is an energy field between humans,” wrote Love and Will philosopher Rollo May. “And, when a person reaches out in passion, it is usually met with an answering passion.” Passionate relations provoke passionate responses. And, when leaders “pass-I-on” to another it triggers a “pass-me-back” response. Ask twenty people to name the greatest leaders of all times. Sure, you might get a military general or two. But, the list will likely be made up of leaders who stirred their followers with emotional fire than leaders who lectured their followers with factual reasoning. Kennedy, Churchill, King, Lincoln, Teresa, and Gandhi were not famous for their rationalism. Passion takes the plain vanilla out of encounters. Philosopher Hegel wrote, “Nothing great in the world has been accomplished without passion.”
Leadership, like a winter holiday celebration, has become commercialized. Great leadership too often has been used as a synonym for great profit makers, just like the holiday season has too often been only about shopping and buying. But, the real meaning of leadership, just like the real meaning of winter celebrations in all faiths, is about spirit. Leadership at its finest is the spirited pursuit of the remarkable—elevating the best of each of us. In the end, great leaders are devoted to what people and organizations can become.