Leading from “Among” Not from “Above”

One morning when my good friend, Stewart Emery (Success Built to Last), was at my house visiting, he told me a story while we were having breakfast. It was about an interview he did with a well-known billionaire in the computer industry. The billionaire shared an intriguing story with Stewart about an experience he’d had when the senior executives of a company that was interested in purchasing his company came to visit his office to discuss the possible purchase.

At lunch time, the billionaire told those senior executives that he was going to take them to the Executive Dining Room. They followed him to the dining room, which was very nice but far from extravagant. However, that wasn’t the big surprise. The surprise was that the dining room had a buffet line. The billionaire walked up to the buffet area, picked up a tray, and stood in line behind everyone else. The visiting executives looked around the room as it filled up and realized that this room was not an “executive dining room,” it was the company dining room. The boss stood there in line with all the employees, and he spoke to everyone. No one was afraid to talk to him.

In my opinion, he didn’t lead by being above them; he led by being among them. Stewart told me that the billionaire said the visiting management team was surprised by the fact that he and all of his company’s executives ate with all the employees. One of them commented that this would have to change. For the boss, it was a test. This was not the kind of company that he wanted to sell his business to, and the negotiation ended that day.

It’s a Choice

Companies have a choice. They can move toward exclusivity in their organizational culture, or they can strive for, commit to, honor, and embrace inclusivity in their organizational culture.

Sometimes when people meet me, they say they are surprised that I am approachable. I find that interesting. I think they feel this way because sometimes we, as leaders, act in a way that people perceive as unapproachable. Some leaders act “better than” to other people.

I believe people should be surprised when a leader is unapproachable, not when they are approachable. The problem is that we live in a world where success sometimes creates a sense of separation (with both the organizational leaders and others). One of the key things to embrace in a successful company is the sense that the boss, the owner, the senior executive(s) are, in fact, approachable – to everyone.

I think of Stewart’s story often when I reflect on my years of running and growing BNI® and how much I enjoyed, and still do, the opportunities to be among the people in the organization.

Feel free to share your thoughts and experiences on this topic in the comments below. 




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