As the Roman poet Virgil once wrote, “Trust not too much to appearances.” This was true two thousand years ago and it’s still true today. We have cliches in our heads about who someone is—or how they ought to be—solely based on their appearance. For instance, what should an NBA basketball player look like? You might think extremely tall, like over six-foot-five. Except, one of the best point guards of all time was Muggsy Bogues, who stood five-foot-three.
What should a pianist look like? You might think someone with long, spindly fingers that can play complex chords, such as the legendary Russian pianist Sergei Rachmaninoff, whose alien-like hands could span an absurd thirteen keys. Except, you may have heard of a guy named Elton John. His short, stubby fingers didn’t stop him from composing “Tiny Dancer.” And my favorite musician of all time, Billy Joel, has fingers like sausages, and he’s literally the “Piano Man.”
Now, what if I asked you what a leader looks like? You might think of someone tall or charismatic. The kind of person who commands a room as soon as they walk inside. Think of the longtime CEO of General Electric, Jack Welch, who was nicknamed “Neutron Jack” for his ruthless penchant for cost-cutting and firing thousands of employees at a time. Maybe you think of Margaret Thatcher, dubbed “The Iron Lady” for her steely demeanor and uncompromising politics.
We’ve been conditioned to think that leaders must look and act a certain way to succeed. Jack Welch and Margaret Thatcher were great leaders, don’t get me wrong, but for years people in business were taught to act boldly and loudly to be successful. But is that really the case?
In high school, I first began to realize that true leadership has nothing to do with how a person looks or sounds. My senior year, I ran for class president against a guy named Doug Walner. Now, Doug was a cool dude. Taller than me, better looking than me, smarter than me, and ten times more popular. Except, I worked my tail off campaigning and personally reaching out to the four hundred other students in my class. I was the underdog, but I was authentic and I managed to win.
I saw this dynamic again on the professional speaker’s circuit. Truth is, it’s pretty easy to get gigs when you look like you’re supposed to be there. If you’re tall, sharp, and good-looking, you’ll get a lot of invitations even if your content is thin. But here’s the thing: if your appearance is all you’ve got going for you, you’ll never get invited back to speak again. As for me, I’m five-foot-nine and twenty-pounds overweight. I graduated with a 2.0 GPA from college and I often sound like it: my speeches are peppered with plenty of stumbles and “Umms” and “Uhhhs” and other vocal ticks that polished speakers have long since smoothed out. And yet, I’ve become one of the top speakers in the country not in spite of these flaws, but because of them. Organizations invite me back again and again because, as I learned back in high school, audiences connect with genuine authenticity.
They’re drawn to people like my friend Greg Austin. Now, when you first look at Greg, you may not think he’s an executive. When he walks into a room, he doesn’t make his presence known. He barely stands five-nine, and you sometimes have to lean in to hear what he’s saying. Greg looks and talks like an unassuming middle manager. Except, he is the CEO of Professional Case Management, which provides in-home healthcare to the most vulnerable people in our society. They specialize in helping workers who were sickened after working with nuclear weapons and uranium. They care for people with spinal cord and brain injuries as well as degenerative conditions like ALS and multiple sclerosis.
Greg has some of the most loyal employees that I have ever seen. Thousands of them would walk through coals or run through a burning building to support him. Pro Case Management has much less turnover than its competitors simply because Greg cares about his employees as much as they care for their patients. I began understanding why Greg’s team loves him so much when I met his wife, Susie, and their three daughters. Greg and Susie have such a beautiful and authentic story. When they were eighteen they met while working together at McDonald’s, and you see that humbleness in everything they do. Whenever Greg and Susie look at each other, it’s like you’re witnessing the first time they fell in love. All three of their daughters have participated in our Global Youth Leadership Academy over the years. Most fathers would kill to have their daughters speak about them the way Allie, Amy and Anna speak about their dad.
Jackson McConnell is another guy you may not assume is a high-powered business leader. Born and raised in the South, he’s got a buttery drawl that has the effect of calming those around him. Like Greg, he’s on the shorter side. Jackson is the CEO of Pinnacle Bank in Elberton, Georgia, and it’s the kind of stubborn, old-school institution that prides itself on community banking. Your idea of a banker is probably a smooth-talking guy with a fancy suit and a corner office in a Midtown Manhattan high rise. Except, Jackson’s headquarters is next to a Dollar Tree and an ACE Hardware. That hasn’t stopped him from growing the bank from $204 million in assets to $2.0 billion.
As one story goes, Jackson was in his office when he noticed that a delivery truck had stalled in the bank’s parking lot. The driver was tinkering with the engine but couldn’t get it to start. The truck was full of seafood that needed to be transported to local restaurants, so Jackson took off his suit jacket and started loading cod, shrimp, sea bass, and swordfish into his own car and spent the rest of his afternoon making deliveries. Do you think Neutron Jack Welch would have ever done something like that?
Maybe it’s time everyone throw their misconceptions about what leaders look and sound like out the window. A major workplace study found that the most admired managers shared four key traits: 1) showing humility, 2) learning from criticism, 3) being courageous, and 4) holding themselves accountable. Those are the ingredients of not just a strong leader, but a heart-led leader. Notice how things like “charismatic,” “good-looking,” “tall,” or “domineering” aren’t on there. People like Greg Austin and Jackson McConnell learned a long time ago what a real leader looks and sounds like—just ask their employees. There’s a thin line between confidence and arrogance. It’s called humility. Confidence smiles, but arrogance smirks. When you learn to walk that line authentically like Greg and Jackson do, I guarantee you’ll have found the true look of a leader.