What is Leadership?

Leadership is a rare thing. After 15 years in corporate America I look back at all of the speeches that I’ve sat through as a salesperson and very few of them stand out. In fact, there is only one that I remember with any great degree of clarity. I was working at a young company in Austin Texas when a new vice president took the helm of our organization. We heard things about him, like you do when any VP comes on board, but what I remember was that he was in his early thirties, wore a suit every day and he led us to achieve remarkable goals. He also had big hair…the guy was definitely still using hairspray.

Leaders understand the difference between what you say and the real message. My dad used to say there are two things at play when people speak — the message and the metamessage (underlying meaning). When this guy spoke the metamessage included the following: “You are important, you and I are not as far apart as you might think, and together we’re going to do great things.” Once I remember him saying we were seeing the same presentation he’d given to his bosses because the cable company kept him at home the day before. For a guy who who lectured at the University of Texas in his spare time and had a house in West Lake hills…it seemed he had a lot in common with new employees.

For the next two ½ years he set what I would call “maybe goals”. The kind of goals that were so high that maybe if everyone committed and maybe if we gave it 110% and maybe if everyone pulled together…it was possible. At the end of the quarter he’d paint a picture of where we’d been, where we were, and where we were going. Even though I have a degree in History, I never had a problem following what he was saying. We also met and exceeded the “maybe goals” every quarter.

I’m surprised that I don’t remember more of his speeches. Perhaps it’s because the layout was the same. The same metamessage: “You guys are great, we have a lot in common and together we’re going to do great things.” In fact, the only speech I remember is the one he gave before leaving our group to lead the corporate sales department. We were summoned to a large room, we had grown to a fortune 500 company, and he told us he was there to hand over the reins to the new VP.

He goes through the new guy’s previous roles, his accomplishments and introduces him. The new VP says he looks forward to working with us, mentions what a great job our former VP had done…and then says we failed to hit our number last quarter. I didn’t recall us ever missing a number and it was the first time I’d heard the word fail at these meetings. I looked to my right and saw our former VP leaning against the wall with the other executives. A few minutes later he returns to the podium. You could tell it was unexpected.

This is an excerpt of the speech our former VP gave: “Just now your new vice president used a word that I don’t like. He used the word fail. He said, specifically, that you failed. I am taking this opportunity to correct it.” And then he paused, “You did not fail. If anyone in this room is responsible for failing it is us, it is your management…if anything we failed you. I want to thank you for a great quarter and all of your efforts.” And then he sat down. I remember two hundred plus employee’s rising to their feet for a standing ovation…it was our way of thanking him for the years of service to the team.

In this brief article I’d like to suggest what leadership is — without metamessage: 1) Tell your employees how important they are. 2) Speak plainly so that every person in the room can understand. 3) Always give the credit, all of it, to the people who make it happen.

written by Adam Weedy

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