What does leadership look like? I’ve attended leadership seminars where, at the end of several days, many participants understood what they heard but they had little idea how to apply the principles in daily life.
I was recently invited to speak at the end of a Texas county’s at the quarterly meeting of government department heads and elected officials. The group of 45 people discussed typical local government issues: road repair, bond proposals, instructions for handling polling places for an upcoming election, public health issues, and similar things.
During the meeting there was one very obvious thing: these people liked each other. They joked easily together. The atmosphere had a noticeable lack of hostility and tension. And it was easy to see why.
The leadership at the top of the organization cared about the people they work with and set the tone from the top.
The county judge leading the meeting had an easy way about him. It was obvious he liked to have fun and he liked to joke with people. But it wasn’t excessive. By the same token, it was easy to tell that the judge was someone who understood his job, got things done, and helped lead his county to success.
More than that, both the judge and the auditor noted that the success of the recent audit of their county by important financial and credit institutions was thanks to the staff. The ability of the employees of the various departments to do their job well and have all of their documentation in order—no small feat—is what made the county one of the most impressive the outside auditors had ever seen.
Acknowledging the people who do the work is a vital habit of great leaders; I’ve seen far too many “leaders” who feel compelled to take the credit for themselves and forget about who really gets the work done.
Several of the employees told me, “We’re very lucky. We really do get along very well. We know there aren’t a lot of counties like this.” And the judge added: “It hasn’t always been this way. It’s taken a lot of hard work.”
The results of that hard work are obvious, made possible by the commitment of the people at the top of the organization to support the people throughout the organization. If I had to try to summarize it in a word, I’d say this group of people has spirit.
In some ways, it felt almost unnecessary for me to give my presentation. These people seemed to be living their leadership, both at the top of the organization and at other levels. They enjoyed working with each other, communicated well, and were effective in their jobs.
That, to me, is an important part of what leadership looks like.