She was the chief operating officer of a large company, and this was the leadership conference for her company. I was there as a keynote speaker, and her "message to the troops" came right before my closing remarks. She had been going through chemotherapy for breast cancer and was utterly bald . . . no wig and no hat. She stood before this large group of followers entirely without pretense, embarrassment, or reserve. And she was incredibly compelling.
I asked the meeting planner what she was like as a leader. "Awesome and inspiring," she told me. "She is so courageous and jarringly authentic." Everyone thinks she is an amazing leader." As I listened to her powerful message, I thought about how great leadership needs to be totally real before it is attractively adorned; jarringly authentic, not just charmingly presented.
Baldheaded leadership is genuine and trust-building. Baldheaded leadership is courageous and transparent. Baldheaded leadership is not the flashy bravado that creates employee stories of heroism, or a father/mother figure who serves as a benevolent caretaker for all. When we boldly remove the cover-ups of clever presentation, smile-generating politeness, kick-butt power, and aesthetic prettiness, baldheaded leadership is the reliable basic bond that makes employees feel confident, even gallant.
Baldheaded Leaders Drop their Rank
Combat troops are better behaved in the field (where a battle is likely to occur) than in the relative safety of the rear area. As an infantry commander in Viet Nam, I wondered if it was related to the fact that military leaders remove markings of rank while in the field, since enemy snipers seek to get battlefield leaders in their crosshairs to strip their adversary of command.
This left the concept of "leadership" less related to apparent authority and more to subtle influence. It also took the focus off of "whom" and placed it squarely on "what." Those officers who resorted to barking orders in a desperate attempt to signal rank often found their edicts sabotaged or circumvented by adroit foot soldiers skilled at deception.
Once I invited a fellow consultant to assist me with a group of senior executives of a long-term client. She had heard me rave about the CEO of this company. Her flight was delayed, and the meeting was underway when she arrived, preventing me from introducing her. After listening to the group in a spirited dialogue over a strategic challenge, she asked me, "Which one is the CEO?" It was the highest compliment I could have bestowed on a leader fond of saying, "Never add any more leadership than is needed." Leaders without rank busy themselves with the business of mission and course, not might and conceit.
Baldheaded Leaders are Egalitarian
One of my fun questions used in leadership classes is posed by this scenario:
Pretend you go away on vacation for a couple of weeks. While you are gone, your employees get together, pool their betting money, and collectively buy several lottery tickets. They agree that if any ticket wins, they divide the proceeds equally. You are away, so you do not participate. They win one of the largest lotteries, making them all independently wealthy. When you return from your vacation, you learn two things: they all plan to continue to work as full-time volunteers, and HR has told you these wealthy volunteers will be the only workers you get. How would your leadership actions change?
I recall one crusty plant manager in a leadership class wisecrack, "I would suck up and ask for forgiveness!" But the concept of partnership makes leadership take on the tone of a leader of equals, much like the managing partner of a law firm or medical practice. Your tools of influence are relationship management rather than power wielding. Your job shifts from "kicking butts and taking names" to supporting, encouraging, coaching, inspiring, affirming, and removing barriers.
Lao Tzu wrote, "A leader is best when people barely know he (or she) exists. When his (her) work is done, the aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves." Herman Miller CEO Max De Pree embellished on this baldheaded leadership concept in this way: "The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between, the leader is a servant."
Leadership is not about what you do as much as it is who you are. Lead baldheaded!