Bear with me, this will all tie out in the end.
Scene 1: It was November 4, 2011. My daughter was getting married the next day. In preparation for the father of the bride toast, I spent hours searching for the profound piece of advice I could give them for the rest of their lives.
As I lay in bed with my laptop, I looked over at my sick wife. What had gotten us through 33 years of marriage? The answer wasn’t to be found with a fancy platitude. Looking at her, I settled on the thought of "When You’re Right, Shut Up!” It felt right. That was my toast. The lesson? Better to be quiet.
Scene 2: My brother Mike always loved the saying "You Don’t Know what You Don’t Know,” reminding me that I can’t see the blind spots I have. It’s not what I know that’s the problem, it’s what I don’t know. The lesson? Others see your blind spots, learn from others.
Scene 3: I love music. In a similar vein to blind spots, I think music has the most impact between the notes, when there is silence between eighth notes that build anticipation. It takes discipline for a musician not to fill in those quiet instances that drive the human ear to fill in. The lesson? Listen to what’s not said.
Which brings me to the reason for this discussion today. You see, in leadership, it’s not always what is said, what is known or what is heard that brings about fundamental change. Many times it’s what’s not said. It’s not the note that’s played, it’s the note that’s not played. When you value the understated nature of bringing people together, it gives you the experience of the miracle of the human spirit.
When you want to make changes, shouting orders will bring about quick, resentful change. The employee, like a rubber band, will bounce back with equal force at its earliest opportunity, the change undone with long-lasting resentment. Certainly leading by example is a great way to show people what is important. But if you’re the leader of a large organization, it’s hard to show someone leadership by planting trees, running the meetings or answering every customer call, so what’s the answer?
It lies in principle. I firmly believe "When the Principle is understood, every decision is already made!” Get your principles right. Make sure they align with your people and your customers. I don’t mean with a cheesy wall sign that says "The Customer is Always Right!” I’m talking about an internal compass that says "People are all that’s important. Take care of your people (customers, vendors and employees) and the business will take care of itself.” I’m not saying that this principle will make you rich. It can, as I know, cost you a lot. When I talk about success, I talk about a lasting success. How do you measure it? In a P and L? A balance Sheet? YES! Of course, but consider that years after your last fiscal quarter ended, the money long spent, you’ll still be reaping the rewards of your actions towards others. Yes, finances are important, but they are quick to measure, quick to evaporate.
Scene 4: August 1, 1993; my motto was to spend money on capital equipment. That investment was MINE and I owned it. Big employee paychecks were a waste of money because they could walk out the door forever on a whim. On that day, I had a change of heart like the Grinch at Christmas. I decided that my biggest asset wasn’t a bunch of shiny skid loaders, but were in fact walking out the door every Friday, and I needed them to come back every Monday, and that was OK. What was equipment without good people; what were sales without honorable salespeople?
The growth of my business exploded, and I was just along for the ride.
This principle is not for the faint of heart. This principle has caused me to suffer epic failures and enjoy successes over the years. I enjoyed having others in front. I got more enjoyment out of watching other people learn and succeed.
If I’ve conveyed my message, I hope you are hearing me say, "It’s not about me, it’s about others, and because it’s about others, my success is ensured!”
Finally, here is my favorite saying of all time. It was written long ago by Lao Tzu, yet its meaning is timeless. "A leader is best when people barely know he exists, not so good when people obey and acclaim him, worse when they despise him. But of a good leader who talks little when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say, we did it ourselves.”