An Inconspicuous Leader

I didn’t expect a metaphor.

A few months earlier, I had been asked if I would lead a fitness class on one of the mornings of an upcoming offsite conference. Although the request was more along the lines of, “we’ve already decided this is what we’re going to do, so you really don’t have a choice”, I happily agreed.

By the time the final agenda was distributed, the single fitness class had mutated into leading a run on both mornings. At this point I should state that, unless interrupted by various obstacles and mud pits, I don’t like running. And I’m not particularly fond of mornings. Yet, there I stood, outside of a hotel in the pre-dawn darkness waiting with a group of a dozen colleagues who had blindly trusted me to lead them in their morning exercise ritual.

And, with that, the metaphor begins.

In any line of business, the project is ubiquitous; so much so that, if you’re not involved in multiple, simultaneous strategic initiatives, you may want to question the direction of your company – or your role within it. Whatever the project, whatever the business, success depends upon a clear and consistent vision of the goal, strong leadership, and cohesive teamwork.

While most of our happy band knew each other, we’d never before run together. Therefore, our initial assessments of the respective strengths of our colleagues – and their likely contribution to the task – had no stronger basis than reputation or plain assumption.

Our ultimate goal was clear, but the paths toward it were various and uncertain. The running trail map provided by the hotel clearly wasn’t on the best of terms with the vicinity it purported to depict (a whole golf course was missing!) and seemed purposely designed to send runners off into the wilderness, chasing random dotted lines, never to be seen again.

In the absence of reliable documentation, the best available direction came from Lauren, who at least had a vague sense of how to get to our goal and how long it should take. Although it often surprises me how much collective trust we’re prepared to invest in the slimmest experience, in an ignorant world, expertise is a low bar. Anyway, given that Lauren generally knows what she’s talking about, and considering that no one else had a clue, we set off.tahoerunners (2)

As the jovial banter that had preceded the start of the run and continued for its first few hundred yards gradually subsided, to be replaced by ever more concentrated breathing and panted sound bites, the task ahead and our commitment to see it through as a team seemed to find a stronger focus with each pounded step.

With the darkness retreating, the local coyotes found their voice, and we found our rhythm.

By the time the second mile was behind us, practical experience had either confirmed or adjusted our earlier assumptions about our colleagues’ capabilities. In a short time, we had gained a better sense of what we could achieve and how hard we could push. Most importantly, we were all still moving forward, heading in the same direction and the goal had not changed.

Meanwhile, a couple of runners had fallen slightly off of the pace. Recognizing this, Chris, by far the most accomplished runner in the group, fell back to join them.

Of course, no project is complete without a little unanticipated change in direction. As our goal came into view, I encouraged the team to strike out for home. However, what initially appeared to be an arrow-straight path to our destination suddenly veered to the right – away from our goal and parallel to a fairway on the non-existent golf course. In my enthusiasm to get us to the end, I had underestimated how much effort remained. The unseen corner steadfastly refused to be cut.

At the finish line, whatever individual satisfaction was gained from a task successfully completed, our collective achievement was greater still. A quick review of our split times showed that we had reached each milestone (to return to the word’s original meaning) faster than we had reached the one before. Despite the increasing intensity of effort, we had become more efficient the more we worked together.

Shortly, I reflected on what we had accomplished. In what I would like to have said was a coordinated effort but, in all honesty, was largely accidental, Chris and I had led the team to performances they may not have achieved alone. We had pulled the team forward as they, in turn, pushed to do more; a colleague who stumbled was soon back on his feet; the few who fell behind were encouraged onward.

Amid laughter and congratulation, we disbursed and a favorite quote replayed in my head.

A leader is best when people barely know he exists. Of a good leader, who talks little, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say, “We did this ourselves”. – Lao Tzu

The inconspicuous leader requires no pedestal, seeks no fanfare, demands no adulation. But there may be time for a quick, contented smile before the next task begins.

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