It’s a challenge to remember — let alone put into action — all the great ideas we have available to us about how to lead. As someone who has scoured leadership books for decades and who runs an exclusive leadership program for top women executives through Signature Leaders, I still find myself getting overwhelmed with new suggestions about how we can get better.
It’s easy enough to understand the concepts in books like Sylvia Ann Hewett’s Executive Presence, Brene Brown’s Daring Greatly and Mark Mazzarella’s Putting My Best Foot Forward. But how do we make the best of the best ideas work in real life?
I stumbled upon the answer in a conversation with my sister.
She was telling me about something her husband had done this past weekend. He had come home with a bag full of groceries and started to unpack it. First, he pulled out a can of tennis balls and handed them to her.
“What’s this for?” she asked.
“Don’t you have a tennis game tomorrow? I wanted you to have new balls to take with you.”
Next, he pulled out a pack of new batteries. “And those?” she inquired.
He replied, “I noticed your garage door opener was working sporadically.”
My sister then said something profound to me.
“You see…life is all about the little things. It all comes down to tennis balls and batteries. Knowing someone is thinking about you and caring for you.”
Suddenly, leadership got real simple.
Isn’t making people feel valued and thought of at the heart of leadership? Isn’t leadership about thinking ahead and giving our direct reports and teams what they need before they are aware they need it? The tools to do the job. A story about something that did not work and the learning that came out of it. Encouragement.
Just a few words at the right moment can add value in the present and have significant impact days, weeks, even years later. These are some of the little things we provide as leaders. There are many more.
At a recent Signature alumni retreat, I asked several of the amazing female executives there what came to mind when they thought about the one leader who inspired them the most. Everyone’s responses related to a great leader expressing that they care.
“Someone who listened to me. Really listened. I knew it with their eye contact and their body language that they valued my opinion, even if they didn’t always agree with it.”
“She always had a positive word or two to share. Even when we were in critical problem-solving mode, she was positive and gave energy to everyone in the room.”
“He always smiled, even in bad times.”
“My inspirational leader knew how to fill the bucket, not dip into it.”
This last reference to bucket filling, taken from a book called Have you filled a bucket today? A guide to daily happiness for kids, is a wonderful metaphor for leaders. Imagine that every person in your organization is walking around with an empty bucket that needs filling. Your job is to help them fill it by giving them kindness, appreciation and love. By behaving with compassion and strength. By listening fully when they are talking. By sharing your wisdom. By being kind and giving them tennis balls to play with. By making sure they have the energy they need before you send them into their next game.
Leadership can be this simple.
Tennis balls and batteries.