A few years ago my husband and I vacationed in Paris. We went for adventure, for love, for history… It was my first trip “across the pond” and although I was anticipating romance, joy, and the wonder of the old buildings, old streets and art.
I was not anticipating a leadership lesson…
Everyone recommended touring the Gardens at The Palace of Versailles. However, before we went, I did no research so I was completely unprepared for what I saw in both the gardens and throughout the entire palace grounds.
- The gardens are on 800 hectares, which is the equivalent of 1,976 acres of land in the United States.
- The gardens have over 200,000 trees and over 210,000 flowers.
- To see the gardens you wander down paths between maze-like hedges, which are lined with marble statues.
- Each path leads to one of 50 gorgeous water fountains.
- In the middle of the gardens lies a cross-shaped Grand Canal for boating and fishing.
- And situated on these spectacular grounds are the Palace, the Grand Trianon and Marie-Antoinette’s Estate.
At first I walked the grounds in complete awe of the beauty there. It was so easy to imagine the Kings and Queens of old, hosting majestic balls, summer events, and hunting parties.
- Then my thoughts began to turn from the majesty of the place to wondering what it was like to live there.
- Then my thoughts turned to the people outside of the palace grounds that were starving, as royalty and their court lived so divinely.
The differences were so extreme, and seemed so visually obvious that my first reaction was to judge the royal family, that thought-process was quickly followed by a deeper desire to understand:
- Did all of the ancient royals lack character?
- Did any of them recognize their Achilles Heel?
- Was it possible to be born in an environment that encouraged egos to grow in magnitude through the constant acquisition of more possessions, and more power and yet have the vision to contribute to a greater good? (…And if so, how hard would it be to change the paradigm and lead by serving?)
As I began to imagine that some of the royal family could learn that there was more to life, and be committed to making a difference I was reminded of the size of their role. It was so visually staggering that it was obvious that they would need several wise advisers that were brave enough to hold the king or queen accountable to that vision. Those thoughts then led me to focus on the advisers themselves, knowing that no matter how wise they were, they too would face would face temptations of pride, power, and possessions.
- If those advisers were accountable to the vision of the greater good, and to leading with integrity, if they listened, served and advised based on those things, everyone would be more successful.
- If however, those advisers were in it for themselves and withheld or skewed information to achieve their own desires the king or queen would make uninformed decisions that did not address the real issues impacting their people, their country. (Which would ultimately expose their second Achilles Heel and negatively impact their results and their reputation.)
After returning home I spent a lot of time pondering and decided that Versailles gave me a visual of a basic truth in leadership: We are all human and all have Achilles Heels.
As I pondered that truth, I received a message over Twitter from someone confessing that he has often overlooked poor character because of someone’s great skills. I don’t know the circumstances of that specific story. However, I do know that:
- Over-looking someone’s character because of their skills has brought down entire organizations and caused grief and pain for thousands.
- When those closest to a leader encourage the leader to limit their contact with employees and customers, the leader is being cut off for a reason.
- Where there is smoke, there is usually fire.
If we desire to lead well we must be proactive about pursuing and preserving that character in ourselves and in those closest to us. I believe Abraham Lincoln actively practiced a solution for this issue. In the book, Lincoln on Leadership by Donald T Phillips, Phillips emphasizes that with the exception of times Lincoln was very sick and when his son died, he was out of his office a minimum of 5 days a month and sometimes more than 10 days a month engaging with people, asking questions, and learning… During that time, Lincoln spent time with congress, military leaders & troops, touring battlefields, inspecting weapons and shipyards, and visiting with the sick and the wounded. When he had to make a decision he was better prepared to make it based in facts and with an understanding of the entire picture. Years later Tom Peters and Robert Waterman named this principle MBWA – Managing By Walking Around.
The foundation of great leadership and organizational growth are the same. To build something that lasts, each one of us must have a pro-active plan in place to seek out and preserve truth.
- A list of values to stand on and never compromise.
- The open invitation to employees, peers, and customers to hold you accountable
- The commitment to hire people with the same values as the organization.
- The discipline to hold staff at every level accountable to keeping those values.
- To Manage By Walking Around – Being present and engaged with employees and customers.
Which path are you on?
- The one that fuels pride, and strokes your ego or theirs?
- Or the one that serves a greater good?