I am like a broken record and an old one at that, as I never seem to quit talking about systems thinking as “the most important trait” of great leaders. I’ll stop the broken record for a moment and talk a little about the other, equally important aspect of great leadership, love. If one can’t genuinely care about people, one can’t lead.
In 2002, I published my first book, The New Agreements in the Workplace. In that book was the Agreement for leaders to “Love, Grow and Serve Your People”. In explaining this Agreement, I wrote the following story:
Gramps as a Leader – from The New Agreements in the Workplace
I was asthmatic as a kid, small and scrawny for my age, and not very athletic. Being the youngest and smallest in school until about the age of sixteen, I was what might be described as a social outcast. Somehow, my grandfather, “Gramps”, never seemed to see my many flaws and became the most important person in my life. Love really is the answer. I was lucky enough to learn this lesson at a very young age.
Gramps was short, about five-feet-seven, even though he always claimed to be five-eight or five-nine. He was a wiry Scotsman and strong as an ox. He was afraid of no man, and I had heard the stories about his prowess with a fist or an ax handle in the wild construction camps that he managed in his younger days. He had rightfully earned the respect of even the hardest of men. People were careful not to cross the man they respectfully referred to as Mr. Boyd, the man in charge of some of the most challenging construction projects ever attempted in North America.
I had heard the stories, but I never saw that side of my grandfather. Sure, he was strong and encouraged me to do more than I thought I could do. He would say, “You can do it, go ahead.” But he was gentle, too. He could tell when I needed an arm over my shoulder, a kind word, a hearty laugh.
Gramps, being a “water man,” taught me to swim when I was five. A few years later we were swimming beyond the breakers when an acute asthma attack left me unable to breathe. I fought to stay afloat, struggling mightily for each constricted breath. “Gramps, I can’t breathe!” I gasped. He shouted back, “Swim over to me and I’ll help you in.” Thrashing the water with growing panic, I inched my way toward him. Stretching to reach him, I felt my body sink into the choppy gloom. Fighting my way to the surface, I reached and sank again.
My throat was closing; every attempt at breath brought more water. I reached for him again, begging. No luck. He always seemed to be just out of my grasp. The battle for breath was lost, my energy exhausted. Just when I knew I could go no farther, I felt something strange brush against my foot, and then again. My God, it was sand! I had reached shallower water and was standing on tiptoes on the sand. Gramps had been moving toward the shore, staying just out of my reach until I made it in on my own.
Gramps took my arm, pulled me to his chest, and walked me the rest of the way to shallow water. He held my hand while I remained bent over in knee-deep water trying to catch my breath. Finally, he kneeled down and looked up at me. Wiping the tears from his eyes, he said, “I knew you could do it. Now you know you can do it, too. No matter what happens, no matter how hard it is, you can always make it if you don’t give up.”
Looking back, I think letting me struggle like that might have been one of the most difficult things my grandfather ever did for me. I think he was scared. He was very quiet the rest of the day and made it a point to put his arm around me more than usual.
Gramps was like that. He never gave up. He never stopped believing in himself or in me. We were partners. Together, we grew watermelons in the vacant lot next door. We chose just the right one, split it open, ate it, and thoroughly enjoyed the mess we made, the bigger the better. We laughed a lot. He was genuinely interested in my view of the world.
We walked along the cliffs on narrow sandy trails high above the rocks and surf that posed more than a little threat to those less surefooted. We ate sour grass together and had contests to see who could stand chewing the biggest mouthful for the longest period. I think he let me win and pretended he couldn’t take it.
We were like that. We were partners from the day of my birth. He was my leader and my teacher, and what he taught me was the power of unconditional love through commitment and contribution to others.
True leadership was the relationship my grandfather had with me. I would have followed him anywhere, done anything for him, and always with a smile on my face.
Like Gramps, the new leaders who must navigate our changing workplaces will lead from the heart, pulling their people with them as a part of their contributions. These new leaders will pull their followers to them because real caring is magnetic. No one will be pushed.
Sure, the new leaders will be tough in their commitment to their people just like my grand- father was with me. But he was always there to catch me. He would never have let me fail. Neither will the new leaders with their people.
The new leaders will be models for their people. They will speak their truth and walk their talk, not because they are trying to impress anyone, but because that is who they are. They will know that there is no greater gift they can give themselves than to contribute to others from a place of personal integrity and unconditional love.
So there you have it, my new broken record for the two most important aspects of being a great leader: systems thinking and unconditional love.