Issue Number 30: Leadership: Looking for Substance Over Style

Doc Severinson, former bandleader for the Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson, has both substance and a lot of style. A few years ago I was telling a friend about my opportunity to spend some time with Doc, and she told me an interesting story about the difference between substance and style in her life. She had recently participated in a “360” evaluation, which involves being reviewed by your peers, your bosses and your direct reports. She received good reviews from her peers and bosses, but poor reviews from her direct reports.

They described her as “cold” and “uncaring.” They reported that even when they had done a particularly good job, she did not seem to appreciate it. Her boss decided to enroll her in a course to help her learn to express gratitude for the work other people were doing.

She took the course and tried her best to apply what she learned, but it did not work. She felt awkward, her staff felt embarrassed for her, and it only made matters worse.

Her boss called her into his office. “This is not working because you don’t believe in it,” he said, “You are following the style you learned in class, but the substance of your beliefs has not changed. I want you to meet with your staff and level with them. Tell them how you really feel.”

The next day she held a staff meeting and shared her philosophy with them. She said while she honestly appreciated their work, she felt that is what they were paid to do. She was proud of what they accomplished together, did not need congratulations for the work she did, and would not be handing out any more “gratuitous thanks” to them.

Then a strange thing happened. Morale improved because they understood her. Over the next few weeks she began noticing the extra effort some of her staff were making and sincerely thanking them. She found it was not only easier than she thought it would be, but it also made her feel good. The more she did it, the more she liked it. She realized that, perhaps as a result of spending so much time thinking about it, the substance of her beliefs had actually changed.

All of us are attracted by shiny objects — people who look good, dress well and tell us what we want to hear. I look for people of substance, because they will tell me what I need to hear.

The discriminator for me is enthusiasm. People can fake a lot of things, but it is difficult to fake enthusiasm for very long. People who are genuinely enthusiastic about the mission you are trying to accomplish will be there when, and as long as, you need them.

Those are the people I want on my team.

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