The key to leadership – not to be found in management books

It’s only now- decades later- that I realise my father had mastered the most powerful habit an effective leader can have. No management book I’ve read contains this insight. I share it now hoping it is as immensely valuable to you as it has been, and is, to me.

First, a story. I was writing Wrestling Possums posts on a flight to Shanghai recently. I put on the headphones, started listening to Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins, and thought of my Dad. It was his favourite piece.

My memory of him, while blurred, is underpinned by a warm feeling. I remember Dad ‘being around’ when I was growing up.

Most important, of being there when I needed him most. This is how he did it, and here’s how you can bring this critical habit to play in leading teams and clients.

I wouldn’t ask my Dad for help. He just showed up. A phone call. Or he’d pick me up from school unexpectedly, or appear at my bedroom door while I was doing homework, ‘just for a chat.’  He’d ask me to join him for a walk. Or I’d find his arm slipping around my shoulder just when I needed a hug.

And that’s the point. He’d show up “just when I needed….”

The Key To Leadership: Knowing When To Show Up

My father knew the secret to keeping me on track and in top gear. With clients and with your teams, knowing when to ‘show up’ is critical to keeping people, the work and relationships on track. Here’s how to get it right.

Three ways to know when to show up

1. Trust Your Instincts: whenever I find myself wondering, “How’s George going?’ “Been a while since…” “Why do I have a sense of uneasiness when I see that client logo?” “Why have I got butterflies in my stomach?” “I wonder what’s happening on…?” When you get that nagging feeling, feel something in your waters…then, ‘show up.’ Put an arm around a colleague (figuratively), or indeed a client. Go smell the air with your teams. Check in. Ask questions. Test the temperature. Buy someone a coffee. Have a breakfast.

2. Remind Yourself: I have a cue in my office. .. a paperclip container with the logo of my first ever client, Bridgestone Tyres. Whenever I look at it, I’m reminded to ask myself: ‘Time To Show Up?’ Seriously. I think about the people I am responsible for and my clients. As I think of each, if I get a nagging feeling, it’s time to show up. Find a cue. Use it to check in regularly with your instincts.

3. Listen With Your Eyes: always be on the alert for small signals. People not looking you in the eye. Phone calls not returned. Someone gone a bit ‘quiet.’ Small errors creeping in. A deadline missed. You hear in passing of a client complaint. More than one high potential staff member leaves part of the business. Hmmm. What’s cooking? Listen. Like thieves. And then check in- check it out.

    I don’t know how my Dad did it. He just knew. Or maybe he trusted his instincts, reminded himself regularly whether it was time to, or listened with his eyes. Either way, thanks Dad for showing up when I needed you to.  It helped keep me on the right path.

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    18 Responses to The key to leadership – not to be found in management books

    1. Gp October 12, 2011 at 10:16 am #

      Nice one. I would add: if you genuinely care about your people at work you will be able to act like that… in a natural way. Just like a father loves his son… well, almost 🙂

      • Chris Savage October 12, 2011 at 2:10 pm #

        Thanks.. true.

    2. David Angell October 12, 2011 at 10:32 am #

      What you describe in this post is a real and intuitive art, which more than most things can only be perfected with experience, and also a willingness to put yourself, as a leader, in that position. It also makes me think differently about where sources of professional guidance and leadership can come from, and as a result, where we should be consciously looking for them.

      • Chris Savage October 12, 2011 at 2:10 pm #

        Thanks David- appreciate the comment. Chris

    3. Anne Miles October 12, 2011 at 12:36 pm #

      Chris, your Dad set you up for success by the sound of it. That’s no doubt a lot to do with why you are where you are. It is so great you are passing on the learning for others to adopt. Even being aware of yourself enough to know these small actions contribute to your success is a success strategy in itself. Thanks for sharing.

      • Chris Savage October 12, 2011 at 2:10 pm #

        Thanks Anne. Appreciate your feedback very much. Chris

    4. Camille October 12, 2011 at 5:57 pm #

      Listen like thieves…. but act like a cop. In other words, delight your employees by creating an efficient workplace. Run a reliable household and you have delighted employees who will smile to clients. Don’t smile and or be a good cop and you wont find yourself being nominated for industry Awards 🙂

      • Chris Savage October 12, 2011 at 6:03 pm #

        Thanks Camille- I like the sentiment. Chris

    5. Alix Cameron October 12, 2011 at 8:33 pm #

      Hi Chris,
      I enjoyed your post and the fatherly voice you managed to convey within it too. Very apt, and well executed. You made me think though, you emphasis the leader standing on his/her own and discuss your fathers instinct as a mystery gift, I’d like to offer the idea your Dad was leading from within the community of your family, not from outside, which enhanced his empathy.

      I have a strong belief that many business leaders often see their roles as puppeteers rather than being part of and the brains of an organism. I think that this perception has an incredible effect on their ability to see, hear and manage their businesses.
      Thank you for sharing,

      • Chris Savage October 13, 2011 at 1:24 pm #

        Thanks Alix- puppeteers always get found out I believe. If it’s not real, you’ll be found out. Chris

    6. Sharon Vandermeer October 13, 2011 at 11:27 am #

      All so true! Just the other day I had a feel that one of my staff was not quite herself….I took the time to chat and discovered why. Its about being intune with all the team and this can only happen when you interact and genuinely connect with them. Love it

      • Chris Savage October 13, 2011 at 1:25 pm #

        Well caught Sharon!

    7. Melissa Gamble October 18, 2011 at 3:45 pm #

      Nice one Chris. I love this. Great advice. (& thanks to Dad!)

      M 🙂

      • Chris Savage October 19, 2011 at 9:03 am #

        Thanks Mel!!!


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