More than twenty years ago, I had an experience with two very different leaders. Those experiences have dramatically shaped my own view of leadership. In the end, they represent two very different styles, leading to two very different results.
One evening in 1988, my business partner and I had dinner with one of the most prominent pastors in America. He’s not so well known now, but at the time he was at the top of his game.
His name was a household word. He had enjoyed a string of bestsellers and one of the largest viewing audience of any TV evangelist. We were there to talk about the prospect of publishing his next book.
He was his usual charming self at dinner. For about forty-five minutes he regaled us with stories of his children, his grandchildren, his new house, the growth of his ministry and influence, etc. Never once did he ask us about our lives, our families, or our business. We got the distinct sense that this was merely another speech, masquerading as a conversation.
Finally, he came up for air. Seeming a bit embarrassed that he had waxed on and on about himself, he said, “I’m sorry, enough about me …”
For a nano-second, we felt a spark of hope. It was quickly extinguished when—without taking a breath—he continued: “Let’s talk about my book.”
In the ten years I was in a business relationship with this author, I don’t recall him ever asking me a single question. At the end of our association, he didn’t know me any better than he did the first day we met.
Contrast this with another meeting I had in 1983. At the time, I was working for Word Books, a company that Thomas Nelson later acquired. I was an acquistions editor. My boss, Ernie Owen, was a master at author relations. He rightly believed that this was the cornerstone of any successful publishing program.
As part of my training, he sent me to Anchorage, Alaska to attend the Billy Graham Crusade. He thought it would be good for us to support Mr. Graham in this way since we were his exclusive publisher.
I was 28-years-old. I had never met anyone as famous as Mr. Graham, and I was nervous as I could possibly be. I spent the long plane ride from Dallas to Anchorage writing out a set of questions I intended to ask Mr. Graham when we met.
I arrived at the arena where Mr. Graham was scheduled to speak about an hour before the program was to begin. My palms were sweating. My mouth was dry. But I was eager to meet this great man of God, counting it an extraordinary privilege to meet such a living legend.
One of his aides ushered me back to the “Green Room”—the special preparation room where speakers wait until it is their turn to speak. When I walked into the room, Mr. Graham was the only one there. He immediately stood up, smiled, and extended his hand, “Hi, Michael, my name is Billy.” (As if I didn’t know.)
He invited me to sit down and visit with him. I pulled out my day planner with my list of questions. I never got to ask a single one.
Mr. Graham pummeled me with questions. He asked about my upbringing, my family, and my business. He asked me about my relationship with Christ.
These were not the questions of an interrogator but a friend. He laughed easily, and followed up every answer with another query—before I could turn the tables. He never took his eyes off me. He was totally present.
I left feeling known and validated. I was on cloud nine. In 20 minutes, he had an impact on me that would forever change the way I think about leadership. I remember thinking, If I am ever in a position of leadership, that’s the kind of person I want to be!
Two leaders. Two styles. Two very different outcomes. The first one is essentially washed up. He essentially has no influence today. Meanwhile, at age 92, Mr. Graham has left a legacy—not only in the lives of the millions he has touched, but in my heart. The legend lives on.