follow the Leader

I’d read the back of a soup can if Joel Stein wrote it, so as I studiously scrolled through my blog reader this weekend, trawling through posts from the Harvard Business Review that I subscribe to out of some vague feeling that I should, the one he wrote caught my attention. (Surprisingly, “History Rhymes in the Greek Debt Crisis” did not.)

Titled “Boringness: The Secret to Great Leadership,” the article is typically hilarious Stein, this time talking about the research he completed for his new book about masculinity. As he spent time with a number of leaders, he learned his ideas about strong leadership were wrong; instead of an alpha male who could out-flex and out-yell his team or a charming comedian, the best leaders were somewhat quiet and very humble.

He focuses on Captain Buzz Smith of the Los Angeles fire department, who—despite having the name of a “plastic action figure”—is decidedly unflashy.

“What Captain Smith and other effective leaders I met have is a code,” he writes. “Capt. Smith isn’t weighing each decision based on a desire to keep his team happy”

–can we please pause a minute here? Read that again. Absorb. Okay–

“or to be fair to each guy…His job is to run a clean, orderly house so the team can respond with military precision. The calmness Capt. Smith exuded, I eventually realized, was humility. He didn’t need to express everything he felt immediately, because he understood he wasn’t the most important person.”

Another pause. Leaders, how many of you really, deep down, think you’re not the most important person in the room?


“Everyone at his firehouse knows they are doing things exactly right. And that seems to make them both proud and assured. They would do anything for Capt. Smith. Not because they love him — I’m not entirely sure that outside of the firehouse he could inspire them even to switch TV channels — but because his deep belief in his mission makes them also believe in that mission.

What Capt. Smith understands is that inspiring people through your personality is a risky, exhausting endeavor. But if you make people feel like you’re going to help them accomplish something far bigger than you — not just saving lives, but living by a system that provides dignity and pride — you can let your belief do the work for you.”

Did you catch that?

That is fabulous news.

It means process and philosophy beat personality. It means the not-super-funny and the not-most-attractive-in-the-room can be the most effective.

It means character matters more than charisma.

It means your personality doesn’t have to be larger than life–your vision and your commitment to it do.

And it means all those pastors who are preoccupied with the succession plans for their pulpits can relax and focus on the more important work of building momentum behind a mission that will outlast them.

Stein’s article was a great reminder of what Jim Collins has been saying for years about “level 5” leaders…….and, incidentally, what the Bible has been teaching for many more: despite the egos of some Christians I know, the best leadership is marked by humility.

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