Leader, full of grace

Lead Change is a leadership media destination with a unique editorial focus on driving change within organizations, teams, and individuals. Lead Change, a division of Weaving Influence, publishes twice monthly with SmartBrief. Today's post is by Chip Bell

Fireside chats can generally yield surprising depth and insights. When the chat leader is a CEO and the audience include high-potential leaders at an executive training retreat, it can be doubly poignant and powerful. Fireside chats afford a crucible for candor and a forum for authenticity.

Ten years ago, I was a trainer at the retreat and a guest at the after-dinner fireside chat.

“What are the most crucial qualities of a great leader?” was the question from an armchair participant, shot point-blank at her charismatic CEO. The CEO catalogued the typical top-10 leader features you might expect would accompany such an answer. Then, after a long pause, he added, “ and, grace.”

It provoked silence. Everyone in the room waited on the edge of their armchairs to learn more about this unexpected addition.

“Grace is about acceptance, the opposite of judgment. It is the building block of a culture that nurtures innovation and invention. It is ironically the same word we use for elegance with a sense of purity,” he explained.

No one in the conference center living room expected this tough, results-oriented leader to suddenly turn philosophical. But he did. And they were clearly moved.

He briefly highlighted a tragic story many in the room had heard on the news. I later Googled the story for the facts, and this is what I learned.

The milk delivery man in Georgetown, Pa., had lost his infant daughter. He never got over it. Nine years later, that delivery man — Charles Roberts, who was married and the father of three children — burst into a one-room Amish schoolhouse in Nickel Mines, Pa., with a handgun, 12-gauge shotgun, rifle, cans of black powder, stun gun, two knives, a toolbox and restraint devices. He told the boys and teacher to leave the room. He lined up the girls and shot them. Five died and several more were severely wounded. He later shot himself.

But what followed the tragedy was the centerpiece of the CEO’s point about the power of grace. The Amish community visited the widow of the murderer to offer their heartfelt condolences. The day of the funeral, the same week after burying five of their children, the Amish community attended the funeral of the murderer. There were nearly as many Amish at the funeral as non-Amish. On the one-year anniversary of the massacre, the Amish community quietly made a cash donation to the widow of the man who had slain five of their children.

I never forgot the example and the way he tied it to leadership.

We live in an era when disruptors thrive, and marketplace followers struggle just to keep up. Incremental improvement, once the standard for progressive leadership, has been replaced with, “If it ain’t broke, break it.” Warp speed to market has become a table stake. And those in constant pursuit of innovation are the only ones likely to end the race in the winner’s circle. It means leaders must foster inventiveness as well as its “fail fast, learn fast” corollary as their keystones of success.

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos said in a Business Insider interview: “I’ve made billions of dollars of failures at Amazon. None of those things are fun. But they also don’t matter. What really matters is, companies that don’t continue to experiment, companies that don’t embrace failure, they eventually get in a desperate position where the only thing they can do is a ‘Hail Mary’ bet at the very end of their corporate existence.”

Leaders with grace lead with deep confidence. They exhibit no need to resort to creating fear or relying on authority as the mantle for their influence. They imbed the spirit of encouragement in their pronouncements meant to challenge. They know that humility is more powerful than vanity, concern is more influential than command.

And the leader with grace can release the finest from employees ensuring the perseverance of their brand.


Chip R. Bell is a renowned keynote speaker, trainer, and the author of several award-winning, best-selling books. His newest book is "Kaleidoscope: Delivering Innovative Service That Sparkles." Visit his website.

If you enjoyed this article, join SmartBrief’s e-mail list for our daily newsletter on being a better, smarter leader and communicator. We also have more than 200 industry-focused newsletters, all free to sign up.