A Tale of Two Leaders

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Leaders come in all different shapes and sizes. Literally, of course, and figuratively. I’ve known quite a few. Some good, some bad, some in the making and some on the way out. I’m no Andy Stanley, Michael Hyatt or Patrick Lencioni (who are my leadership mentors, from afar, and whose writings and podcasts I highly recommend for anyone serious about improving their leadership). But after 20 years of law practice, operations, and leadership in general, I have some thoughts.

There are two I want to highlight today. They represent two different kinds of leaders but both possess two qualities all good leaders should have.

I have a friend I’ll call Alison. Because that’s her real name. She’s a leader. But it has taken a long time for her to see that (I’m not sure she is even comfortable with that title yet). She’s a leader on a church staff and within a congregation. When I first met her, she had zero comfort with the label of leader. She’d tell you she wasn’t one, at least not in the workplace (I imagine at home her three sweet boys and her wonderful husband would tell you otherwise). But she was a learner. She learned about technical aspects of her job but she also absorbed leadership lessons for those around her. She saw me make mistakes and have some successes, and she learned from these experiences and from other leaders within the church community as well.

Interestingly, when we think of leaders, we often think of people who want to stand in front of a large crowd and give a motivational or an in-your-face, come to Jesus speech. But Alison would be the first to refuse such an “honor.” Her leadership is quiet, behind the scenes, but terribly, terribly important. I’ve learned from watching her. I would say the strongest attributes of her leadership are truth-telling and encouragement. She’s very encouraging (example below), but she’s not going to listen to your “BS” and not call you on it. In fact, I’d say she has a very low “BS” tolerance. If every leader had that, this world would be a better place.

Last year, she gave me a red briefcase “because it belongs with you in your new job,” she told me. She downplayed the gift, telling me that it was just collecting dust in her house, so it should be put to good use. Did I mention it’s red? I’m not a flashy kind of girl. But I love this briefcase because it pushed me to do something simple (add a color to my bruise-toned wardrobe), and more importantly, it reminds of that quiet but firm leadership is what makes the world work.

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Quiet is not the attribute of all leaders. It’s not an attribute of my leadership. And it is not the attribute of the leadership of another friend. I’ll call her Paige. Yes, because that’s her name.

Paige is a leader in public education. For those of you who just thought “oh, poor Paige,” I will admit to saying that under my breath about 100 times a school year. She’s been teaching for over 20 years, and yet, technically, she’s the best there is. She didn’t become “dead wood” because she has tenure. She’s been a great teacher who worked hard to get better, and invested loudly in her students. By that I mean, she also takes no “BS” but I would not say she is quiet about it. It fits her style, and so that works. Her main leadership attributes are also truth telling and encouragment but in a very different way and in a very different industry.

She’s not just a leader of students (students, who, by the way, consistently tell her how well she prepared them for college English and life). She a leader of teachers. She’s in charge of many and it is no easy job. She has dealt with colleagues who don’t care and/or who lack a basic fit for the profession, and administrators who “don’t get it.” Not always—she has colleagues she has mentored who mirror her professionalism, and on occasion she’s had administrators who actually spent some time in the classroom before administration, and who support the efforts of hard working teachers but not the excuses of lazy ones.

But she’s not quiet. She tells teachers when they are being lazy. She tells administrators when they don’t understand classroom teaching, and when they lack the expertise to make teaching suggestions. What does that mean for her? She’ll always be a leader, but she has the guts to tell the powers that be what they need to hear.

And if it falls on deaf ears? She teaches on, mentoring those teachers who are teachable, and encouraging the hundreds of students she has charge of each year to see past high school and into their futures.

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What’s the point of this? The point is this: you can be a quiet leader or a loud one. That depends on your personality and your individual situation. But truth telling? Encouragement? Those are non-negotiables for all leaders.

What do you think makes a great leader?

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