After 25 years of teaching at Stanford Business School, I’ve had hundreds of leaders and entrepreneurs as class guests, some of them among the world’s most accomplished and well-known. Each has had strong, and often divergent, opinions about how best to lead and manage people. It turns out that there are almost as many opinions on leadership as there are leaders.
Despite the many differences, the one trait these effective leaders have shared is inspiration through actions. They’ve executed their way to credibility. They’ve delivered on promises. They’ve built trust one event at a time, one challenge at a time, one initiative at a time. They all seem to realize that, over time, it’s about how they act (and react) that defines them. In moments of truth, their actions shine; they become the embodiment of a shared mission.
One leader I’ve come to know and admire is Adam Silver of the National Basketball Association (NBA). Silver is an exemplar of “walking the talk.” He’s soft-spoken, more lawyer than promoter, more thought-leader than media star. But he’s emerged as perhaps the most respected commissioner in all of professional sports, deftly handling controversies such as the fallout over former Los Angeles Clippers’ owner Donald Sterling’s racist remarks in 2014.
Perhaps more importantly, he has been intentional and measured about elevating and broadening the league’s image, making it about quality of play, fun, and inclusiveness. Silver has endeared himself to players and to fans alike by promoting the stars of the game over himself, and the game over its stars, and the community over the league. His brand has emerged less by talking than by doing.
We all know so-called leaders who are all about themselves, all about image, all about talk. Not only do they promote themselves, but some of the more vocal seem to alternate between scolding and preaching. More show pony than workhorse, they often develop impressive skills for finessing problems, delaying or deflecting. Indeed, some who have developed this flavor of leadership seem to have found their way to political leadership.
This is a shame. Despite attracting the most “show ponies,” the political arena is precisely a place that could use “workhorse” leadership. Finding political solutions is hard work – often requiring more skills of leaders who have “run things” than the legislative skills of wordsmiths. Indeed, political leadership is challenging. It is easy to feel minimized or frustrated with the process. But, even more so than in the private sector, it is critical that leaders in the political arena embrace the core value that actions trump words.
One of my mentors, the legendary real estate developer Trammell Crow, used to say, “You can’t talk your way out of problems you behaved your way into.” Any nation, any business, any school or community will get further by behaving its way out of problems than it will by assigning blame in endless analysis.
Determined and persistent leaders know that, in the end, their intentions won’t matter nearly as much as their results In the private sector, I’ve learned that the key to effective leadership is to develop clarity around objectives, budgets, time frames, and deliverables. The leaders who master all four metrics will lead winning teams and be known for their actions, by their results — and not by their words or best intentions.