The Effective Leader Next Door

In their insightful book, The Millionaire Next Door, authors Stanley and Danko paint a picture of the “typical” millionaire – they live in older middle-class neighborhoods, drive late model vehicles, dress nicely but don’t follow trends, and embrace lifestyle frugality at every turn.  In other words, these folks don’t necessarily stand out from the crowd in ways we think a millionaire should.  They don’t draw attention to themselves and they certainly don’t talk much, if at all, about their wealth.

I was thinking about this mental image of the millionaire next door the other day and comparing it with an image of effective leadership that I believe has validity as well.  As I have written about before, I believe a primary function of leadership is to design environments or cultures within which individuals are encouraged to become the best versions of themselves.  It is the leader as designer metaphor that I find very helpful.

Much like many millionaires do not draw attention to their wealth, I have found that the most effective leaders do not draw attention to the positive cultures they have helped to shape.

Here is what I mean:  If a CEO tells me that she encourages employees to provide her with critical evaluations of her work.  If she says that she is proud of the “open and candid” culture that she has helped create for her team.  If she talks about wanting “honest criticism.”  If she talks about these things, it usually means she doesn’t really have them.  It is not uncommon for me to hear from those in her care that she really doesn’t want open, honest, candid, critical feedback – despite what she says!

Here is another example:  When I worked a private, liberal arts college I recall a retired, former provost of the institution explaining to me that he was troubled by the lack of “community” present on the current campus.  In response I pointed out all of the many workshops, speakers, classes, etc., that had as their focus the concept of strengthening “our community.”  He looked at me wisely and said, “Jason, when I was there we never talked about community, we simply had it.  Today it is the opposite.”

As you think about strengthening your leadership skill set and the culture you help shape, are there characteristics of your culture that you talk about a great deal?  What about “being a team?”  Or, “living our mission.”  Next, pose this tough question to yourself, “Do you really have it, or do you simply talk about it a lot?”

In many instances, I find what leaders talk about having isn’t necessarily what their teams feel they actually have.  And then there are those leaders who don’t talk much about the healthy, encouraging, effective cultures they’ve created for their teams, they just have those cultures.  You sense it immediately in how people respond to each other.  You can feel the energy and see evidence of individual creativity.  You can tell people enjoy coming to work.  I call those leaders, “The Effective Leaders Next Door.”


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