For those who don’t know – I had great seats for the MSU vs. Iowa basketball game last week (see pic above of me being an idiot on national TV – it was AWESOME!). My company, HRU, does a bunch of IT business with MSU and we are big supporters (yep, I now have the infamous “donor” tag at MSU) of MSU athletics – heck, our corporate headquarters is about 2 miles from campus and roughly 1/2 of my staff are Sparty grads. All those things being put together – I was offered a chance to travel with the MSU basketball team to the Iowa game and got a chance to sit behind the bench for the game.
So, what does this have to do with Leadership Traits? This is probably where you’ll believe I’ll go on and on about how great MSU Head Coach Tom Izzo (he’s also the guy on the front page of this blog in the pic with me) is – because he is – but you’re wrong. The leader I want to talk about is one of the team captains from MSU, Russel Byrd (only a sophomore). Here’s a kid who barely plays. Was a highly recruited kid out of high school, but still hasn’t found his shot at the college level. I think most of Spartan Nation was stunned when he was named one of the Captains for the 2012-12013 team. How does a kid who rarely plays, become Captain of the team?
The uncommon trait of a leader – not being the most skilled.
Normally, in most organizations, the people who ascend to leadership positions, tend to be the most skilled, or pretty close to the most skilled. It is very rare that a person is selected who isn’t the most skilled. Why? Traditional thinking says how can you lead people who are better than you. The reality is, and we know this in HR, having high skill in a function and having the ability to lead in that same function – really have zero correlation. No doubt, many great leaders are also highly skilled, but not always.
Back to my Spartys! What I came away with from my trip with MSU Basketball was that Russell Byrd is a natural leader. I called him the mayor, the entire trip – I might be his biggest fan now! He never missed an opportunity to engage with those traveling with him – his teammates, his coaches, the team managers, us tag-along donors, the hotel staff, etc. It might be a handshake, eye contact with a wink and a smile or putting his arm around you and joking around. He was encouraging, always, he kept a positive attitude even when his own performance, that night, wasn’t what he would have wanted. While not having a good game, he set his own feelings aside, to pick up those on his team, who were more skilled, who needed some picking up. He put his team, before himself.
When you think about succession in your organization, I wonder how many of us really look at one’s ability to lead vs. how skilled they are. I immediately assumed Russell Byrd would not make a good Captain for his team, based on his skill level. I think too often, those responsible for hiring leaders, do the same thing. We pass over many of our most influential employees and give the job to the best performer – who often struggle in that role. I’m not saying Byrd is a great leader because he’s not the most skilled, I’m saying he’s a great leader in spite of not being the most skilled.
Great skill does not equal great leadership. Great leadership comes from having an ability to connect with people.