Max De Pree, chairman emeritus of Herman Miller, Inc., and a respected voice on leadership, defines the responsibilities of leadership about as concisely as I’ve ever seen. He writes:
The first responsibility of a leader is to “define reality”. The last is to say “thank you”. In between the two, the leader must become a servant and a debtor. That sums up the progress of an artful leader.
Hmmm … this phrase “defining reality” got me to thinking. Defining reality can mean a lot of different things. And it doesn’t have to be complicated or fancy. It can mean facing up to the reality of the current state of your business. Whether it’s good or not-so-good. Deciding on a course of action and then executing it. (Someone once said “the worst person to lie to is yourself”!
It means having a firm grasp of and communicating your Vision (where you are going) and your Mission (what you hope to accomplish) to your people in both your words AND in your actions.
And sometimes it means making the tough calls—even when you fret or lose sleep over having to do it.
Remember that Mr. De Pree stated that the last responsibility of leadership is to say “thank you”. And this is where actions frequently speak louder than words.
Saying “thank you” can be making sure the equipment your people use is maintained and safe to operate. Even if you’re not the one doing the repairs (and in many cases that’s a good idea), then it’s allocating the budget for the repairs, or simply making it a high enough priority to make sure the maintenance gets done.
Saying “Thank you” can be respecting the fact that (unlike you!) your people actually have a life outside of work! This means that sometimes they may not be able to drop everything they’re doing and come in to work on a moment’s notice. Or that sometimes they need to get home to their families instead of feverishly slaving away in YOUR business!
Saying “thank you” also means taking responsibility and not making excuses for the financial performance of your company. (Steve Toburen calls this “taking the hit”.) By focusing on financial success you can provide the training, the raises, the bonuses, and all the other perks that attract and keep the best people.
Saying “thank you” can also mean simply asking for input from your people, listening to their ideas, and then acting on the things they suggest. After all, without your people following your lead you are just another guy out there working alone. (Jon-Don’s Nick Paolella, who is one of my favorite models for “Servant Leadership”, always says, “I surround myself with smarter people than me and then let them do their job!”)
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Max (and Nick) have it right. The two big responsibilities of leadership (“Defining reality” and “saying thank you”) really are pretty simple. Consistently executing them well on a daily basis is the tough part!