To be a great leader, don’t tell your employees about it – show them

April 22, 2019

After the UVA men’s basketball team’s historic win earlier this month, I have read many articles about head coach Tony Bennett’s great leadership in achieving this tremendous accomplishment.

The articles are correct — Bennett is a great leader, but not because he won the national championship.

Every year, a college team will win the national championship and the coaches of those teams may or may not be great leaders due to that accomplishment.

Over the last 25 years, I’ve witnessed many successful leaders who accomplish amazing goals despite being what I would describe as extremely poor leaders.

There are verbally abusive and bullying leaders, unethical leaders and those who show favoritism or who are divisive and selfish. There are leaders that focus on their “stars” and ignore their bench. There are leaders that take credit in the good times — and blame others in the bad.

Yet, somehow, these leaders might accomplish what some view as “success.”

In 2018, the Cavaliers became the first top seed to lose to a No. 16 seed in the opening round of the NCAA national championship tournament. Bennett showed his tremendous leadership in the face of this loss.

In the year following the loss, Bennett didn’t find five new starters or spend the year complaining about the referees or make excuses.

He stayed the course. And stayed true to his values.

Not the values he talks about — the values he lives.

Since the national championship win, many of the articles written about Bennett focus on his five pillars of success — humility, passion, unity, servanthood and thankfulness.

In 2015, Bennett talked about his five pillars in an interview, saying that humility was possibly his favorite pillar because he recognized how important it was to be genuine and true to who you are.

Bennett showed what humility looked like after that historic loss in 2018, and he showed it again this month when UVA won the championship. He told his players, “Don’t let this change you. Stay humble and stay thankful.”

After being named the Final Four MVP, UVA player Kyle Guy modeled his coach’s behavior, showing humility, saying he felt one of his teammates earned the honor more than he did.

Bennett also talked in 2015 about surrounding himself with people he was willing to lose with and with people of great character. Referring to his father’s advice, he said, “Don’t take a shortcut on character. You want men of character.”

Too often I see leaders who are willing to take a shortcut on character to achieve a financial or other corporate goal.

For instance, sometimes an investigation will reveal bullying or harassing behavior of an employee. Despite these findings, some leaders will excuse the behavior and/or find a way to keep the employee because the employee is important or considered a “star” or favorite.

That same leader will turn around and send a message to all employees about his or her values.

These leaders talk the talk — but don’t walk the walk.

Bennett lives his values, models the behaviors expected, and has stayed true to himself. He expects the same of his team.

He didn’t talk to his players about his pillars — he showed them. He made them a priority.

My advice to every manager or leader, if you want to be a great leader: Don’t just tell your employees about it. Show them.

Don’t create a code of conduct you aren’t going to model or enforce.

Don’t promote a set of values that you don’t even expect your own leadership team to embody.

Hold yourself and those around you accountable for the pillars important to you and your organization.

Surround yourself with people of good character and those with whom you want to be around — including in times of adversity.

Show them every single day, with every decision, in the good times and bad.