Strength Whispers, Weakness Screams

You know how sometimes you hear something that you just cannot stop thinking about? When that happens to me, I write it on a sticky and place it on the window in my office until I figure out what it is trying to tell me. Not long ago this sticky made it to my window.

I heard this phrase while listening to an interview on TV. On its face the interview was unrelated to leadership. The interviewer, Chris Hayes, was discussing the recent events at Lafayette Square with a member of congress, Representative Ruben Gallego, who is a Marine Corps veteran. The congressman was sharing his belief that that violence does not equal strength. He said simply, “that’s just not the way it is.” He went on to say, “I always try to remind people, especially young people who get into politics, the most important thing to always remember is this… strength whispers, weakness screams”.

It was such an elegant comment in such a difficult moment. Those four words struck me as so important, that I captured them on one those sticky notes and put it on my window. I kept looking at that sticky for weeks and those four words kept running through my mind. Then I realized why. Every great leader I have known leads from strength. You know who they are. They are the people for whom you willingly walk through walls. They are the leaders you want to work with again and again. In these trying times, when our patience is in tatters and our world is upside down, the importance of how we show up and lead really counts.

In his highly acclaimed book Good to Great, Jim Collins, introduces the term “Level 5 Leadership” and explains that Professional Will and Personal Humility are the two sides of a level five leader. He describes these traits in a pattern he calls “the window and the mirror.” Collins says Level 5 leaders “look out the window and apportion credit to factors outside of themselves” and simultaneously “look in the mirror to apportion responsibility” rather than assigning blame. Collins says Level 5 leaders are “rigorous not ruthless.” A critical distinction.

Every individual on my personal list of “best leaders ever” is unique. Each has a different style and approach. What gets them on the list? They all lead through strength rather that fear. They have the will to get the job done and the humility to give others the credit.  Every one of them made me want to emulate them in some way and helped define how I lead and coach today.

The best leaders I have worked with understand and teach others that:

  1. It is not power that makes a leader, rather how power is used.
  2. The loudest voice is just that, loud. Not smarter or braver or more likely to be right.
  3. Building trust is the key leadership attribute. Leaders who are demeaning, insulting, or belittling erode that critical trust.
  4. Exhibiting understanding, compassion and empathy isn’t soft or weak, it is the foundation of leadership strength.
  5. When you make it about you, you lose. Everyone loses.
  6. Self-awareness in the face of adversity is critical.
  7. Building on everyone’s capabilities expands the quality of everyone’s performance.
  8. Creating an environment of accountability is the glue that ensures individual and team success; it is not about having someone to blame.
  9. Asking and listening is learning. “Telling” is not.
  10. Encouraging the success of others is more fulfilling than succeeding alone.

Whether you lead in your profession or at home, how you show up every moment of everyday matters. Why? Because you set an example for everyone in your orbit. You do not get a pass during tough times or when things aren’t going as you would like. Tough times are the test of true leadership strength. Maslow’s famous quote sums it up “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.” Strong leaders must develop a deep toolbox to draw from when everything is great and to meet the times that are unimaginably difficult.

Take another look at these ten elements of leadership strength and ask yourself, are you whispering or screaming? What are the people in your life learning about leadership from you right now?