In twenty minutes of conversation, Denny broke several popular “rules” of leadership. He interrupted me when I started talking too fast. He didn’t use a “love sandwhich” when challenging my unhealthy thought patterns. He didn’t cast a vision for my life.
He simply made me a better person—a better leader.
There’s a lot of hype and hot air out there today. Meeting rooms, board rooms, even churches are filled with over-promising, metaphor-abusing, catch-phrase wielding, “change the world” visionaries who get your blood flowing without ever touching your heart. None of them hold a candle to Denny.
I’ve reflected a lot about my conversation with Denny that day, and the conversations that followed. I’ve compared my time with him to times spent with other leaders, and distilled the differences to a few simple things. Nothing new, but all rarely practiced.
- He listened with his entire being. Denny didn’t just appear to be listening, he really listened. Rarely did he look away from me, only to jot an occasional note in his legal pad (whenever he wrote something down, I knew we would revisit it later). It wasn’t a passive listening either. He would interrupt when I began to rush my thoughts, and ask me to slow down and clarify. In all the conversations I had with Denny, I never felt for one second that he wasn’t tracking with me.
- He asked questions that stopped me, forced me to think, led me to clarity. Anyone can ask questions. The great ones hear silence after they ask a question. When Denny asked me a question, it stopped me. I would rush through a thought, and he would ask me to explain how I came to that conclusion, or what triggered the thought process. He would ask me to think through the repercussions of decisions I was making in both my personal and professional life. He asked for details, specifics. He wanted the whole picture before giving his thoughtful input.
- He shared thoughtful counsel with a humble sense of his own humanity. There was no pretense when Denny gave directive counsel. He wasn’t a fixer, never made me feel like I was a project. He spoke with confidence, yet never put me on my heels. There was no air of perfection. What he did have was a strong sense of who he was, and a caring spirit about him that made me want to follow him, listen to him, be in his space as much as possible. His counsel was well thought out, and clearly articulated. It was offered, rather than forced. Most importantly, it was good. When Denny gave counsel, I took it every time. For two reasons: First, it was abundantly clear in our conversations that he cared about me, and second, he lived the kind of life that I wanted to live. In other words, he was follow-worthy.
People like Denny move the weight of everything in their organizations, one relationship at a time. They walk into a room full of people and see individuals, not one mass lump of humanity. They command respect, loyalty and admiration by the way they live, the way they treat people, the way they communicate. At the heart of great leadership is a person who truly cares about the people they lead. A person who helps others live well.
I can honestly say, without exaggeration, that my time with Denny changed the course of my life for the better.