Staff meeting

The Four S’s of Leadership

Over the course of my personal and professional life I, like most of you, have had the opportunity to observe and work with many in leadership. Some of you may be in leadership positions, as am I. No doubt you have read some of the abundant material on leaders and leadership; some good and some, well, not so much. After 20 years as the Executive Director of Freeborn & Peters, I have developed four rules that define my personal understanding of what it means to be a leader and to fulfill one’s leadership responsibilities. I think of them as “The Four S’s.”

Show Up. Seems obvious, doesn’t it? Perhaps it is. And yet, how many leaders do you know, or have you worked with, who simply “dial it in” and expect the rest of the team to do the heavy lifting? How many leaders do you know who stood side by side with you while you scanned copies of cases into the night or ran interference between you and some angry partner? Said another way, a leader should be present. Not just physically, but emotionally. That means truly listening, understanding, and acknowledging the validity of another person’s thoughts, ideas, and concerns without always feeling the need to express your own.

Now, please don’t hear what I’m not saying. This does not mean that leaders don’t exercise the final word or make the final decision. Indeed, they certainly do, and here’s the key: when it’s called for. Otherwise, show up, support your team member, and be present. You might just be surprised.

Service. Who or what are you serving? Is it the needs of the organization and its stakeholders, or is it your own ego? Too often, it is the latter. True leaders subordinate their egos and learn to take the heat out of the room, not put it into the room. True leaders say “How can I help you?” and not “How can you help me?” Remember John F. Kennedy’s inauguration speech? “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” True leaders seek to serve and not be served.

Second Chair. All my life I have been a musician. A trumpet player, to be exact. I started when I was six years old, played all through high school and then got a degree in music with trumpet as my major instrument. For all those years I worked and competed to play first chair, and I often succeeded. When I later got into the business world, that same spirit followed me. However, here’s the thing about first chair: there’s only one. If you’re in it, no one else is. That means that perhaps their professional growth is not as enriched as it can be. Or that they may lose motivation. Or that they may even come to resent the person in the first chair. Ask yourself this question: where does the spotlight shine? As a leader, it should shine on you only when necessary. At all other times, it should shine on your teammates. If it shines on you all the time, that means everyone else is standing in your shadow. True leaders learn to play second chair.

Spontaneity. For Pete’s sake, have some fun. How many of us know leaders who take themselves soooo seriously? Or can’t take a joke, especially when it’s about them. Laugh at yourself, admit your mistakes, and throw a party once in a while. One of my favorite moments as a leader came several years ago when on Cinco de Mayo, I called our receptionist and asked her to find somewhere in the city with a margarita slushy machine. Dumbfounded, she asked why on earth I wanted one. I told her, “because it’s Cinco de Mayo, and we’re having a party at 3:00 today. Here’s two thousand dollars. You’re in charge.” You know what? She not only found the slushy machine, she got chips, dip, guacamole, and decorated our largest conference area with streamers, sombreros, and even found some mariachi music to play. At 2:45 I started playing the music over our loud speaker system and sent a firm-wide email announcing that we were having margaritas (alcoholic and non-alcoholic) in our conference theater. One of the best parties we ever had. Even the grumpy partners had a good time.

One more thing, as people were thanking me and telling me what a good idea it was, it occurred to me that I was once again in the all-too-familiar first chair. I called our receptionist to the front of the room and said to everyone, “Let’s give ‘Sally’ a Freeborn thank you for putting this party together for us.” Sally got a standing ovation, and I got to slip to the back of the room and have a margarita.

Show up. Service. Second chair. Spontaneity. True leaders live by “the Four S’s.”