Great Leaders Carry the Right Keys

“I’ll tell you what the key is,” an elderly gentleman said to me, tugging downward on my coat sleeve to incline me a little closer to the message he wanted to speak up into my ear. “I always hired people a lot smarter than me!” There was a satisfied twinkle in his eye. He was summing up, in his words and experience, the talk I had just given to the 100 men who gathered very early this past Friday morning at the Tap House Grill in Palatine, IL.

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I was in the middle of speaking to four leadership groups over two days in the greater Chicago area, groups that were pulled together by my friends, Ace and Marge Mokry of Cru, Scott Beilke and Donna Brighton of Brighton Leadership Group, and Bob Schuldt of the Moody Business Network Distinguished Speaker’s Series. After each talk, there were quite a lot of sidebar conversations, and I paid very careful attention to what was on each leader’s mind.

My elderly friend wasn’t unique in his remark. In fact, the nature of my talks guided half a dozen leaders to say this very same thing to me. “The key is surrounding yourself with people who are better than yourself.” And, indeed, there is a great deal of truth in this “truism;” these leaders were pointing to a “key” that is, indeed, key. However, I believe each of these excellent gentlemen were selling themselves a tad short. Allow me to explain.

  • Great leaders hire great people.
    They know that the best way to position themselves for a strong future of growth is to hire fantastic people. “Smarter than me” and “better than me” is what a great leader is always looking for. This is a key, for sure, but the door to greatness has more than one lock.
  • Great leaders grow great people.
    They know that their job is to make the people they hire smarter and better than them. Great leaders already hold a vast repository of treasure, including experience, relationships, trust, wisdom, humility, the capacity to weather storms, and much more. There is no “smart hire” that can best the great leader who has won the right, year over year, to be the one who gets to hire somebody who is smart. Here is where my Chicago friends were selling themselves short — Every single one of these beautiful and highly effective leaders had spent their careers growing the people that they hired, pouring themselves into their people so that their people could gain experience, relationships, trust, wisdom, humility, the capacity to weather storms, and much more.
  • Great leaders turn their work over to great followers.
    They know that their job is to hand over systematically the duties they carry, expertly placing those duties into the hands of those who follow. In one of my talks, I challenged the leaders to “Make yourself expendable far sooner than life will demand!” My point? Twofold: First, this world makes every single one of us expendable — It’s gonna happen! Second, it’s better to hurry up the process. The sooner your team doesn’t need you to do the great things you do, the sooner you can get to the task of doing even greater things. Free yourself from all the tasks for which you used to be “essential,” so that you can multiply your contribution by serving at a higher level. Move up so your people can move up, and teach them to do the same thing!
  • Great leaders live for purposes that are bigger than themselves.
    They know that their leadership isn’t about them and isn’t for them. Their leadership is for others, for purpose, for customers, for followers, for the world. They learn to stop clinging. They know the joy of investing in others. They are secure.

This is why I can’t accept that the key to great leadership is hiring people smarter than oneself. Terrible leaders can hire people who are smarter than them and reap a harvest of disaster. There’s nothing worse than a self-centered leader chasing glory by hiring someone super-smart — in all likelihood, another self-centered leader — and utterly failing to help that person grow in all the things that produce greatness. Such as integrity. Such as humility. Such as a readiness to invest in the growth of others.

Everything that’s important in this world has a “pass-it-on” aspect to it. Marriage. Parenthood. Leadership. Life itself. We must pass on the good we’ve received. Our treasures are to be shared, which is how we catalyze multiplication.

Share it, watch it blossom! Keep it, watch it die!

Poignantly, my friend, Margie Blanchard, shared about the art that she had created over the years. Let me be more precise — Margie shared about the art that was still in existence because she had given it away. When the beautiful home that she and Ken owned in Escondido burned to the ground in a wildfire in 2007, every piece of her own art that she had elected to keep, she lost. And what a treasure it was, she said, to realize that every piece of her own art that she had given away had been saved.

Give it away, save it! Hoard it up, lose it!

That’s the biggest key to great leadership. Give it away! Pass it down the line! Grow those below you! Teach them to follow your lead! Make yourself expendable! And reap the harvest of a life of incalculable worthiness!

Photo by Melissa Harman


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