Looking back at my career thus far, I realize how fortunate I am to have worked with so many brilliant, hard-working, and humble leaders. Early in my career, I learned to observe, emulate, and internalize the most effective techniques they used to motivate and manage their teams. These techniques could be simple as the tone of their voice or knowing when to just shut up and listen, or conversely, complex as methodologies used for forecasting sales. So for me, my professional outlook has been built upon the shoulders of many outstanding leaders.
This model of learning was ingrained in me well before the start of my career. For that, I thank my inspiring leaders in Scouting. Every week for five years as a member of Troop 325, we would dutifully recite the Scout Law: “A scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent.”
Our Scout leaders viewed these as more than just platitudes and focused on at least one attribute of the Law every week. A pillar of Scouting is to foster leadership skills, and one of my most memorable moments was when our assistant Scoutmaster, who was moving out of state, tearfully told us he had learned far more from us than he ever taught to us (and he taught us a lot). I’ve never forgotten his words and view him as the quintessential example of a humble leader. These leadership lessons informed my approach when I started managing teams at my first job with Accenture and still do today at Google.
What I learned is that a leader must create the environment that inspires others to do their best. Teenage boys are a notoriously difficult group to motivate or inspire. Talking abstractly about leadership, service, or excellence would have been met with blank stares. Instead, our Scout leaders daily demonstrated commitment, responsibility, and unselfish motivation to inspire others to follow the Scout motto “Do your best.” My team members now, like our troop back then, often aren’t aware of their talents and strengths that lie within. A wise leader creates a safe environment that demands excellence, but also provides the opportunity to fail and the encouragement to keep striving.
In essence, leadership is service. In movies, the leader is the charismatic “frontman” of the organization. However, the most successful organizations that I’ve seen had leaders who viewed themselves at the bottom of the organization – in committed service to everyone else – rather than at the top. The people and the mission of the organization must come before the leaders’ personal concerns or ambitions.
The leaders I’ve admired have always been deeply committed to excellence, but humble about their personal influence. A leader must be content knowing that he may not be recognized for his contributions. Further, he may never know the extent of his influence. A Greek proverb says “A society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they know they will never rest.” Many of my fellow scouts have gone on to great accomplishments in their lives. Many of my team members may reach great heights in their careers. However, my Scout leaders and I will probably not rest in the shade of those trees. A leader, in scouting or business, must be satisfied in the knowledge that he did his best for the organization and for the people within it. What aspects of the way I work are similar to those of my outstanding leaders? The same aspects in scouting as in business – inspiring others to do their best, service, and humility.