What is that magical quality that sets apart a true leader? It’s never really something tangible, is it? Granted, I’m not just speaking about people in positions of power.
As a Project Manager and consultant in multiple fields, across multiple countries, I’ve been lucky enough to witness the best and the worst. Both are worth learning from, because you can’t really be a good leader unless you’re willing to admit your own flaws and grow from those of others.
I’ve seen speakers enrapture hundreds of native Chinese with strident words, hearty laughter and bucketloads of charisma. I’ve seen filmmakers commanding entire street scenes from New Haven to California to France, shutting down vibrant chunks of the city with an absentminded wave.
Wandering from the U.S. to Europe, the Middle East, Asia and back again, I was privileged to witness politicos and doomsday prophets, struggling dark horses and publicly favored sweethearts, feminist trailblazers and militaristic moguls, street performers and gilded titans of finance.
Been fascinated by old world generals in Dominican Republic, wearing their honor like badges draped across their shoulders. Was truly honored to work side by side with the amazingly talented cast & crew of a small but spirited TV show on ABC called Born to Explore with Richard Wiese.
It was helmed spectacularly by a poised, sophisticated superwoman named Mercedes who managed to Executive Produce an Emmy-award winning show in between raising a ridiculously cool child, thriving in a wonderful marriage, and mentoring wide eyed interns who didn’t know any better.
I’ve seen quiet musicians bring a crowd to their knees in Spain, strumming their guitar and plucking our emotions bare, out in the air for all to see.
On the surface, it seemed to be nothing more than the lush poignant notes from genuine artists, but I was also watching the faces of those around me. Any person who can command the vulnerability of the crowd earns both their affection and their ire.
That applies to leaders, too. It’s hard sometimes to find the line between friend and foe, between superior and supporter, between disciplinarian and drinking buddy.
When you’re responsible for the fate of others, no matter if it’s in the office, on the field of battle, out in the real world… it makes no difference who and what’s around you, what matters is maneuvering creation with control.
I remember my little group of foreigners and I teaching in very rural China. Trying to balance the excitement of new people and places with the natural hive mentality of expats, we ventured to our fair share of bars, discos and local watering holes. The Xiangtan after-hours scene is much, much different than originally anticipated.
The most unexpected discovery came from a low-key little bar at the edge of a park. Rokbar it was called, and it had a Bob Dylan quote flashing neon across the front, shouting it’s otherness for all to see.
It was a favorite of resident gangsters, some workers, very few daring students. A tree erupted through the middle, somehow paying testament to the beauty of nature while still being glaringly out of place.
Strains of heavily accented ’80s pop anthem mixed with the smell of bing long, cigarettes and the gut-rot moonshine named baijiu that unfortunately served as the alcohol of choice. Although he rarely leaves his little corner and is much less outspoken than his festive companions, the bar’s owner (who’s name best translates as “Johnny”) has undeniable presence.
Unusual for the local culture, and China overall, he inherited some money from his father and decided to break from tradition, become a rock star and upon up a bar. The former never really got off the ground, yet the fact that he successfully opened his own place is shocking in and of itself. That’s just not what’s done in Xiangtan.
It’s obvious his staff is nuts about him. He’s got a stunning wife who looks like Asian Tiger Lily, an endearingly social younger brother who can rub elbows with the best of them. A loyal crowd of customers who genuinely love him.
While the other locals thrilled upon mixing with the foreigners in some strange sort of reputation booster, he was satisfied simply to hang back and do his own thing.
A chat with Johnny was like catching a butterfly: rare and all the more brilliant for it’s transience. I always left our conversations feeling different somehow, no matter that we didn’t speak the same language and I barely understood his near-silent syllables.
I came to admire the way he never seemed to be overly involved or cheek-to-jowl with his patrons, yet was able to instantly sense whenever trouble was brewing.
More than that, he could make an entire crowd erupt into gales of laughter with a few well-placed words. A simple friendly pat on the shoulder from him was a better affirmation than the gustiest bear hug could ever be.
He was a man content in his domain, happy with his own self-made slice of heaven. His quiet confidence and self-assurance inspired more respect than the loudest, most blustering dynamo. On paper he was just a bar owner, but the reality was that of a person who’s found their place in this world and flourished.
His mild-mannered countenance seemed an unlikely choice for stewardship of a place not without it’s dangers. Somehow, in a way I was never able to quite put my finger on, he managed.
Johnny is the embodiment of the duality in the very nature of leading others. He knew that ultimately you cannot do so without their respect, loyalty, and freedom to carve their own path.
Unfortunately, there are still those who think that you need to season that mix with fear, or limit their footsteps as to not wander too far afield.
I’ve watched those leaders, too. The ones whose employees startle like frightened hens while in their presence, enduring the brunt of towering anger you can see visibly cowing them further.
The ones who always seem alone and apart, and not because of the mantle of power they wear.
If there’s anything I’ve been able to absorb from the myriad of wonders I’ve been privy to, it’s this: the greatest leaders cherish both order and chaos. Order, because without it nothing would get done. Chaos, because without it nothing would be human.