Lead can be a four-letter word, especially when things go wrong. In media and literature, leadership is celebrated for the perks of power, options, and success or mourned because of abuse, avarice, and failure. While positions, the size of teams, or measurable tools can be used to demonstrate leadership, the best leaders come to mind less because of millions in revenue or trophies on mantles.
words + photographs PHILIP HERZOG
Memorable leaders stand out because of the cultures they build and the way they make you feel. The top leaders, the legends of history and time, are remembered for what they do when things get hard – and how they treat people around them in a crisis. Conflict and failure are part of life, and a leader who paddles upstream with you determines the difference between tragedy and opportunity.
The best leaders come to mind because they live a story with you, build something together, and leave a legacy in your development. The best leaders make you better and celebrate growth through challenges. Open-handed leaders, the best of the best, know good can take place beyond their circle of influence and can authentically celebrate success, even when it is not their own.
One of my self-defining moments was early in my career. I worked at Mama Jean’s Natural Market, a bedrock in Springfield, Missouri. This local business had an incredible team, and when I turned 18, my store manager and direct supervisor sat me down to ask if I would like to apply for a leadership position.
At the time, I had braces and was growing my hair out. Stylistically speaking, it wasn’t my peak. Despite my high-level goofiness, they knew I had fun while taking my job seriously, from stocking shelves to mopping floors. I applied and was promoted.
The new position came with a small raise, but like Dwight from the office, there was something meaningful for me about the title “manager.” But the best part was knowing the change came because people saw me and recognized my work. More than that, they recognized how I treated others. That was good.
Fast forward three months to a day when few people were left in the store, our cleaners were gone, and we were 10 minutes from closing. A team member came to me about a bathroom mess – a truly, shocking, terrible mess. That was bad.
Sparing you the details, this staff member and I were mortified at the scene, and I knew no one wanted to handle it. I had other responsibilities that could have shielded me from the task, but I knew I couldn’t ask this employee to do what I wouldn’t do. So I rolled up my sleeves, put on 12 layers of gloves, and got to work. The experience will forever be seared in my consciousness. When I visit that store, I always recall that night, and I’m reminded leadership comes with its fair share of crap.
I share this story because, while it could have been a seemingly insignificant night during my first year in college, I remember pausing to think, “How you respond today will shape how you respond tomorrow.” I knew this team member would remember, and likely share with others, how I decided to proceed.
That day taught me the immense value of leading when we don’t want to, where we don’t want to, with solutions that are simply unpleasant. As I have grown and transitioned into other roles and jobs, I’ve witnessed leaders lead with excellence and follow others. I’ve been involved with great successes and have engaged in hard conversations. Through it all, I have learned the adage is true – those who are faithful with little will be faithful with much – so I remember the power of small moments, the details that matter, and the value in pausing to listen to what people say without words.
In the past, I defined a leader and boss synonymously, but now I define a leader as someone of influence, and leadership as the ability to synergize others to influence together. “Boss” is a transactional title; a leader is an inspirer.
Leadership is an act of multiplication and arranging of talents, resources, ideas to build a better whole. Every leader depends on others, no matter the size or the scale.
Good leaders ask for help, build a culture of collaboration, and have results because they coach diverse and uniquely gifted people to do more together than they could apart. Most importantly: When the going gets tough, leaders roll up their sleeves and serve through love.
I’m a young leader, and I pray daily I have eyes to see and ears to hear. My calling is simple: In loving God, I’m to love my neighbor. Easier said than done but always worth pursuing.
I get distracted often and find myself asking for forgiveness or owning a mistake, but I zealously listen to the people around me. I seek to help others and be helped. If nothing else, I’ve made it this far by trying my hardest to find everyone’s superpower, and I think that’s good for the world. Be yourself, seek good for others, and hold on tight – a life well lived is guaranteed to carry you alongside others to build vision, purpose, and momentum.
Good leadership may come with its fair share of messes, but be encouraged – it has a rich ROI.
Philip Herzog is an empathetic listener, invested communicator, and enthusiastic connector. His wife, family, and friends ground him and fuel his philanthropic “Why” for southwest Missouri.
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