What We Talk About When We Talk About Leadership

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In Raymond Carver’s indelible story What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, we are treated to an unconventional discussion with four people (two couples) about love. Apart from being one of the better short stories you’ll ever read, the subject, love, seems to present something of a puzzle to all four of the characters in the story. It is something that sure seems simple enough, and yet how do we define love? What is love, in its many dimensions, and what does it mean to each of us?

Perhaps a similar question could be asked about Leadership: How do you really define the key aspects of it, and how does it apply in the organizations that we all work in?

Leadership: What Are You Talking About?….A Baseball Story

What I am talking about when I talk about leadership? I suppose there are many different answers, but just like love, it might be easier to illustrate what I am talking about in a story.

About twenty years ago my son was on a kids baseball team. Both my wife and I were new to youth baseball, and so we honestly had no idea what to expect. One of the curious things about youth sports is what happens with youth sports parents, and also the relationship that these youth sport parents often have with the team coaches, who also tend to be youth sports parents.

In my son’s particular team, the parent coach was an ex-“AAA”-pitcher who had just missed making it to major league baseball, and he seemed to be vaguely motivated to show all the team’s kids how to win, which is exactly how he would have put it; but he wasn’t too interested in the kids particular learning and growth paths. Did any of the kids need to learn a little or a lot about hitting, throwing, or team dynamics? Coach JB (I will call him) didn’t seem too interested. He had a team to run and games to win.

The real story, from a leadership perspective, started when the most talented youth team (the Dodgers) came to play my son’s team, it was a bit of a drubbing for awhile, until the best pitcher on my son’s team started to shutdown the Dodger’s hitters. Then my son’s team made a comeback until their best pitcher (who was all of 8 years old at the time) fell apart, and the Dodgers ran away with the game.

After the game, I noticed that Coach JB was having a talk with the kids on my son’s team in area a bit farther away from the stands than their dugout, and I noticed JB was red faced and seemed very animated. The rest of the parents kept their distance, but as I approached I realized that he was screaming at the kids. All I could think was: how is this going to help a single one of these kids? (None of whom were older than 8 years old.) Coach JB continued berating the kids, and didn’t seem to notice that I was standing right next to him. I took a moment and then interjected that I would like to speak with the coach one-on-one. Coach JB stopped shouting and let the kids disperse.

In my one-on-one discussion with Coach JB, I asked him why he thought his tirade was helpful for the kids. He ignored my question and began to point out the things the other youth sports parents weren’t doing well. He mentioned that parents were often late and didn’t participate in this or that thing.

I then realized that there was no point in trying to better understand why Coach JB thought it was a good idea to scream at the kids, because it wasn’t about the kids at all, it was all about Coach JB and his own self-assessment of how successful he was in running his team.


So I suppose this wasn’t really a story about what Leadership really is, but more of a story of what Leadership really isn’t: Leadership really isn’t about your own success, your own glory, and definitely isn’t about your continual cycles of admonishing others for what you perceive as their failures.

Your Leadership Excellence Cannot Be About You

So what does it mean to be a great leader of your organization today?

I don’t believe much has changed over the years. Leadership is not about your carefully curated LinkedIn profile and image. It is, first and foremost, about helping others to get better together, which is pretty close to impossible unless you take a tremendous interest in the learning and growth of everyone on your team.

Along the way, it is also about humility. As Jim Collins’s research on Level 5 Leadership in Good to Great found, the strongest corporate leaders tend have a tremendous amount of humility:

…we were struck by how the good-to-great leaders didn’t talk about themselves. During interviews with the good-to-great leaders, they’d talk about the company and the contributions of other executives as long as we’d like but would deflect discussion about their own contributions. When pressed to talk about themselves, they’d say things like, “I hope I’m not sounding like a big shot.” Or, “If the board hadn’t picked such great successors, you probably wouldn’t be talking with me today.” Or, “Did I have a lot to do with it? Oh, that sounds so self-serving. I don’t think I can take much credit. We were blessed with marvelous people….It wasn’t just false modesty. Those who worked with or wrote about the good-to-great leaders continually used words like quiet, humble, modest, reserved, shy, gracious, mild-mannered, self-effacing, understated, did not believe his own clippings; and so forth.

Translation: great leadership cannot happen, if you are focused, first and foremost, on your own track record.

The question is: do you still want to be a great leader now that you’ve discovered it really isn’t about you?



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