I have been asked on a number of occasions, by journalists and curious clients, whom I believe to be the greatest leader in America. And I usually respond with my own question. “Are you asking for the name of a famous leader?” This usually leads to a fair amount of confusion, until I explain that the best leader in the world is probably relatively obscure.
You see, I believe that the best leader out there is probably running a small or medium-sized company in a small or medium-sized town. Or maybe they‘re running an elementary school or a church. Moreover, that leader‘s obscurity is not a function of mediocrity, but rather a disdain for unnecessary attention and adulation. He or she would certainly prefer to have a stable home life, motivated employees, and happy customers—in that order—over public recognition.
A skeptic might well respond, “But if this person really were the greatest leader, wouldn‘t his or her company eventually grow in size and stature, and become known for being great?” And the answer to that fine question would be, “Not necessarily.”
A great company should achieve its potential and grow to the size and scale that suits its founders‘ and owners‘ and employees‘ desires, not to mention the potential of its market. It may very well wildly exceed customer expectations and earn a healthy profit by doing so, but not necessarily grow for the sake of growing.
Unfortunately, we live in a world where bigger is often equated with better and where fame and infamy are all too often considered to be one and the same. And so we mistakenly come to believe that if we haven‘t seen a person‘s picture on the cover of BusinessWeek or in a dot-matrixed image in The Wall Street Journal, then they can‘t possibly be the best.
Consider for a moment those high profile leaders we do read about in the newspaper and see on television. Most, but not all, of them share an overwhelming desire and need for attention. You‘ll find them in all kinds of industries, but most prevalently in politics, media, and big business. Look hard enough at them, and there is a decent chance you‘ll discover people who have long aspired to be known as great leaders. These are the same people who also value public recognition over real impact. And based on my experience, you might also find that they‘ll be more highly regarded by strangers and mere acquaintances than by the people who work and live with them most closely.
The truth is, our greatest leaders usually don‘t aspire to positions of great fame or public awareness. They choose instead to lead in places where they can make a tangible, meaningful difference in the lives of the people they are called to serve. The challenges and consequences of their decisions are no less difficult or important than those of higher profile leaders, even if they don‘t quite qualify for a cover story in TIME Magazine.