Leadership and Immortality

Art Jones was the best supervisor I’ve ever seen up close. More than 20 years ago, I spoke at his retirement ceremony. Art retired as a Sergeant from the San Leandro Police Department after more than 30 years.

During the time he was a Sergeant, he supervised and trained every one of the police officers who were senior to him in rank on the day he retired. In those days, I conducted training in supervisory skills for police sergeants. The programs I held in the Bay Area all had three panels of expert senior police sergeants who came in to field questions and give advice to the new Sergeant trainees.

The biggest scheduling problem I had was that every other great supervisor who was on one of the panels wanted to be on the same panel as Art. As one of them said, “I always learn something.”

There's no monument in a town square someplace for great leaders like Art. He never graced the cover of an important magazine. No publishing companies approached him clamoring to publish his memoirs. Art’s monument, and the monument of most business leaders, is more like that of Sir Christopher Wren.

Sir Christopher Wren’s Monument

Christopher Wren was the architect responsible for rebuilding much of the city of London after the Great Fire of 1666. Among the many magnificent buildings he designed is St. Paul’s Cathedral. That’s where Wren is buried.

There’s no striking monument there, either. Instead, there is a simple slab of black marble where Wren’s son placed the Latin words that translate to: “If you seek a monument, look about you.”

Wren’s buildings are everywhere in London, and his influence extends beyond the buildings he designed. His true monument, as his son suggested, is in all his work that lives beyond him and makes him immortal.

It’s like that for most business leaders. Our monuments aren’t made of bronze or marble, they’re in the lives of the people we’ve led and the stories they tell about us.

Over the years, I’ve had many conversations with first-rate leaders who described the influences that helped them do excellent work. Over and over again, they tell stories of people they worked for who demonstrated great leadership by what they said and did.

Those stories and that influence are part of what my friend Mark Deterding calls their “leadership portrait.” Mark puts it this way: “We all have people who have shown us the way and mentored us and shaped our leadership style.” That's a form of immortality. Having that kind of influence on people is a wonderful monument, but we can strive for something even greater.

What Would Art Think?

Several years after Art retired, I was sitting in a meeting of senior officers at the department where Art had spent his career. One of them brought forward a proposal. Discussion ensued. Finally, one person looked at everyone else and asked, “What would Art think of this?”

That’s the ultimate monument to great leadership. Influencing the way others live their lives is amazing. But becoming the standard of excellent performance is even more impressive.

Bottom Line

We all have people whose life and leadership has shaped who we are and how we act. Every day, we go to work and influence the lives of others.

My father used to say that, “You’re alive as long as they tell stories about you.” The people you lead will tell stories about you. Strive to live and lead in a way that the stories are good ones.