Over the weekend, I wrapped up a Heart-Led Leader Women’s retreat at the beautiful Desert Mountain Club in Scottsdale, Arizona. We had twenty-six senior female leaders from all over the country participate. These retreats are all about teaching high-impact leaders to embrace their vulnerabilities, exercise humility, and lead their followers with love and compassion.
To wrap up our retreat, I invited two dear friends of mine, Kyle and Jessica DeGraff, to perform an intimate concert. Kyle is a classically trained opera singer, while Jessica is an incredibly talented mariachi singer. I met this beautiful couple over a dozen years ago when I was CEO of Up with People. They met and fell in love while traveling the world with our organization, changing lives, and bringing the world together through the power of music. And now they were changing the lives of these twenty-six leaders. But what’s truly incredible is that Jessica is blind; in fact, she was one of the first blind students to perform with Up with People.
To say they brought down the house would be an understatement. By the time Kyle and Jessica wrapped up their concert, there wasn’t a dry eye in the room. After a standing ovation, I got talking with some of the women in the audience. “What was your favorite part of the performance?” I asked them. I was expecting them to mention Kyle and Jessica’s breathtaking voices, or their incredibly unique blend of opera, mariachi, and pop music.
Instead, what these leaders couldn’t stop talking about was the way Kyle was looking at his wife while she was performing. It was pure adoration—the look of a man who was thoroughly and completely in love. Not even the best actor in the world could fake a look like that. We were all crying because, deep down, everyone yearns to be looked at like that. To be unconditionally appreciated by another person. To be seen, flaws and all, and not just be accepted, but truly loved.
To get a look like that, you have to earn it. To see it from your spouse, you have to do more than come home from a business trip after a few weeks on the road. To see it from your kids, you have to do more than buy them a car or get them tickets to the hottest concert in town. As Kyle and Jessica reminded us that morning, genuine appreciation isn’t bought; it’s earned.
Later that day, some of the leaders at the retreat asked me what it would take to get their employees to look at them in a similar way. Not to be worshipped like a cult leader, but to be truly respected. At the end of the day, every boss wants to be admired by their employees, and if workplace surveys are any indication, that doesn’t happen very often. It’s the reason so many folks sign up for my leadership retreats. They want to work on themselves to earn that kind of love and respect from their teammates.
I can only think of a handful of leaders who’ve thoroughly earned that reverence from their followers. One is my longtime mentor Bill Graebel. When I walk into his office, I know by the look on the faces of his employees that he leads from the heart. When I chat with the employees at Clark Construction in Bethesda, Maryland, their eyes just melt talking about their executive vice president, Brian Flegel. I hear the same warmth in the voices of the good people at Pinnacle Bank in Elberton, Georgia, when their soft-spoken CEO, Jackson McConnell, walks in the room. It’s no coincidence that these companies have some of the lowest employee turnover and highest profitability in their respective industries.
Leaders like Bill, Brian, and Jackson have spent their entire careers earning the respect of their followers. It takes more than a big Christmas bonus or lots of vacation days. It’s culture. It’s proving that you put the needs of your employees first—full stop, every time. It’s about embracing the four most important words in leadership: IT’S NOT ABOUT YOU.
As Bill, Brian, and Jackson have taught me, earning respect and admiration takes years of steady investment. I was reminded of this a few days ago by my employee Chelsey. She’s been working on our team for about two years now. She’s such a wonderful soul and a hard worker, even though she’s recently hit some rough patches in her personal life. My wife, Jill, and I have embraced her like a member of our family, trying to love and support her as she emerges into a new phase of her life. We even invited Chelsey to join us in Scottsdale for the Heart-Led Leader Women’s Retreat, the first time a member of my staff has attended as a participant.
I knew it was a transformative experience for Chelsey, but on my way to the airport, she handed me a letter. I read it on the car ride, and I could not stop crying. Chelsey thanked me for loving her during a tough period in her life. She thanked me for investing in her. It was one of the most beautiful letters I have ever read, and I immediately thought back to Kyle and Jessica’s concert. In that moment, I knew what it was like to be genuinely loved and appreciated. I know I have a lot more work to do before I get more letters like that. I have a lot more work to do before I’m looked at the way Bill, Brian, and Jackson are every day. Remember that while profit and bottom-line matter, while growth and financial success are worthy goals, your organization is nothing without the people who show up at the office every day. They have their own dreams, and they have their own problems. Like you, they have good days and bad days, and they need to be loved throughout them all. If you never forget this—if you consistently and quietly put the needs of your followers before everything else—you’ll know what it feels like to be genuinely loved and respected. And I don’t think there is a better feeling in the world.