A year ago, I sent a short email request to dozens of people I had never met. Within minutes, the responses came streaming in. It was my most successful email campaign response rate to date.
The subject in question? My dad Dennis.
He turned a milestone birthday, and my sister and I were gathering with his wife at a winery in Oregon, to lounge around in fluffy robes and drink coffee late into the morning. And we brought a surprise gift – a book filled with quotes from people who knew him – “75 things we love about Dennis”.
Hence the email campaign – what do you love about Dennis?
The responses poured in from people I had never met, from countries around the globe, over half of whom had worked with Dennis, with the others being personal friends.
Dennis is retired now, but not so long ago he was a key leader in a public company. He served many roles over the years – including director of mergers and acquisitions, treasurer, transitional head of an acquired company (prompting a temporary move to Nebraska), and vice president of international business. His leadership, along with many others at the company, created a strong foundation that fueled growth, which in the years that followed, doubled sales and the share price to match.
I might have expected that those people he managed and worked with and for at that company would now speak about his shrewd financial decisions, key acquisitions, or his clear vision – all of those traits that we aspire to in leadership.
But that’s not what happened. In reflecting on a life, decades later they spoke about his key human traits that translated into leadership that lasted. They wrote about his kindness, and generosity. His curiosity and learning. And moments when he took great risks and invested against all odds into specific people.
Leadership requires a constant process of courageous self-reflection. So I ask myself – thirty years from now, how will I measure my leadership?
How will you Measure your Leadership?
Recently I was in a meeting where I gave substantive feedback that was very harsh. Now I’m not talking about speaking directly and clearly and mislabeling that, as too many folks do, as overly aggressive. This was different – I walked away from the meeting feeling like I didn’t show up in alignment with my value of kindness. One of the many comments I spoke aloud was “There are dozens of people in this room. One of them should be able to solve this glaring problem.” Ouch.
I’ve come to understand that trust and work relationships that last are built on a orientation of kindness – that the person on my receiving end understands that I connect with and can validate what they care about, even if I don’t agree. On more animalistic terms, they can trust that I’m not going to hurt them. This is a foundational element of inspiring trust – and in my example above, required reconciling and owning my own frustration so that it didn’t come out sideways as unkindness.
This is also different than being “nice” and never rocking the boat. For example, firing someone can be the kindess thing to do for them if they are not thriving.
I grew up watching my Dad have a few key conversations with people he met. He asked detailed, genuine questions about something he was curious about and listened intently as they answered. More than once I have had people tell me that they had a conversation with him, and felt like in that moment they were the most important person in the world to him. Those conversations reflected his orientation as a life-long learner as he gathered information on what moved people, what they loved, and what opportunities they saw in business and in life.
Recently I’ve been in meetings where a leader poses a question in the guise of getting feedback, when they really wanted that elusive concept of buy-in. Questions like: “Are we committed to having three events next year?”
Being a participant in meetings like these is super frustrating – because it supplants true curiosity and makes me feel like I’m part of a public relations exercise. And I know I’m guilty of asking those leading questions myself. Phrases like “Does this make sense?” don’t leave any room for someone to engage thoughtfully in a topic. A fantastic blog by L.David Marquet talks about how to ask better questions as leaders – including “What would you like to hear more about?” instead of “Does this make sense”. [Side note: if you’re really seeking to frame a vision, I recommend business storytelling over leading questions.]
What I love about Dennis is his curiosity. He asks great questions and patiently listens to the answer you give. Some of the activities he did with his staff got everyone brainstorming and challenged to explore and approach a problem or plan with fresh ideas.
True curiosity is the secret power of leaders because it not only unlocks new knowledge and divergent thinking, it forms a deep connection with the person we’re engaged with in conversation.
What I love about Dennis is his pursuit of learning as a citizen of the world, always seeking new adventures and understanding. I remember his appetite for learning and understanding of the peculiar rules of that odd British game, Cricket – I know no other American who has a greater knowledge of or appreciation of the sport.
When I’m able to speak to a positive future, I’ve had occasional rare moments that have impacted thousands of people at once. Energy is contagious.
This doesn’t mean that there’s not a time and place to say – “this here ain’t working for me or this group”. Those times exist, and require course corrections or new boundaries set.
I’m a person who naturally tends toward the muddy areas. Where other people can speak to clear moments, my personality is inclined to pick up the rock and tell you all the reasons it is orange (instead of red or yellow). I can exhaust myself and get weighed down by my own critique of a situation. When I’m searching my brain for a business story to speak to a room, the ones that come to mind first are the “don’t do this” stories, which, if I’m honest with myself, are based on evoking a fear response.
Fear is the most powerful emotion, but it is a paralyzing one. It can prompt compliance for a time, but generative energy – for ourselves or for a group – needs the fuel of optimism. That’s why when I’m intentional about calling on my hope for the future (even as I critique the present) and I’ve spoken into what’s possible, other people respond with boundless energy of their own.
4. Taking Audacious Risks on People
When I look back on my own career, I am grateful for two people that took big risks on me. One, Michael McPherson, let me lead a crazy internal project to use the software from a small start-up called Salesforce to rework the way we ran our organization. Another, Meghan Morrison, hired me as a consultant as I was coming back into the paid workforce after wrangling my boys full time for a few years.
Their confidence allowed me to experiment, take risks of my own, and generate change that stemmed from self-expression.
One thing I love about Dennis is that he is open to any idea no matter how crazy other people think it is. I would not have been able to work out of a home office in Hawaii when I was responsible for Asia if he had not been willing to look outside the corporate “box” and seen the benefits.
It’s easy to think that the key decisions we’ll be remembered for might involve a critical strategic decision we made, or investment we launched. I’ve found, though, that as time passes it’s harder to remember those moments that felt so juicy at the time. And I’ve also found that the glory of “being right” about an idea or concept gets buried under broken relationships and isolation. But when people are involved? Those risks involving people are the most difficult to take, and also the rewards most lasting.
Dennis is a kind, positive and generous soul. One of my fonder memories of Dennis is around his insistence that a certain distributor, despite all evidence to the contrary, was worthy of our continued efforts to partner with him. Dennis was ultimately correct.
The biggest surprise, for me, that came out of the 75 things we love about Dennis was the strikingly similar words that were crafted from a) someone whom he managed and b) someone that managed him. The trait they mentioned – stemming from a place of kindness, curiosity and optimism – was taking an audacious risk on someone else.
Leadership that lasts is a series of ordinary acts of uncommon courage and kindness that are focused and directed into people. May it be so for all of us.