Over the years, I have worked with many great leaders as an executive educator and coach. One client, Charlie (not his real name), in particular is still one of my favorites. He is the one who showed the most improvement — and he is the one who I spent the least amount of time with.
Charlie was president of a division with more than 50,000 employees. His CEO recognized his talents and asked me to help Charlie expand his role, provide more leadership, and build synergy across the organization. Charlie eagerly involved his team in this project. Each person took responsibility for creating positive synergy with cross-organizational colleagues. They regularly reported their efforts, learned from their colleagues, and shared what they learned. They thanked people for ideas and suggestions and followed up to ensure effective implementation.
What I find interesting is that of all the clients I have ever coached, Charlie is the client I spent the least amount of time with. This inverse relationship between our spending time together and he and his team getting better was very humbling. At the end of our project, I told Charlie about this observation. “I think that I spent less time with you and your team than any team I have ever coached, yet you and your team produced the most dramatic, positive results. What should I learn from my experience?”
Charlie thought about my question. “As a coach,” he said, “you should realize that success with your clients isn’t all about you. It’s about the people who choose to work with you.” He chuckled; then he continued: “In a way, I am the same. The success of my organization isn’t about me. It’s all about the great people who are working with me.”
There is a big difference between achievers and leaders. For the great achiever, perhaps someone on Charlie’s team, the focus is all about “me” and reaching individual goals. For Charlie, one of the greatest leaders I’ve ever met, leadership is all about “them” and their success. He truly exemplifies the oft-quoted proverb says: “The best leader, the people do not notice. When the best leader’s work is done, the people say, ‘We did it ourselves.’”
This isn’t what most of the conventional wisdom of leadership dictates. Most leadership literature exaggerates, even glamorizes, the leader’s contribution. The implication being that everything begins with the leader, that she is responsible for your improvement, she guides you to victory, without the leader there is no navigator.
Truly great leaders, like Charlie, recognize how silly it is to believe that a leader is the key to an organization’s success. The best leaders understand that long-term results are created by all of the great people doing the work — not just the one person who has the privilege of being at the top.