A colleague recently left work to return to his home country. He was a senior manager, so had the authority to impact business strategies, culture and environment. But he was more than that. He was probably the most influential and well-loved person in the business.
Apart from being supremely talented and hardworking in his field, he was the upbeat person that would brighten every boring meeting. He was the person to acknowledge hard work that had gone unnoticed in the background or to offer praise for small achievements that were hard won. He would be the first person to offer help, even when he was far too busy with his own stuff.
He was always consistent and put other people’s needs and development above his own. He was a leader.
So when he first told us that he needed to put his family first and move home, we were all devastated. We could not imagine the place without him. We immediately feared falling out of love with the business, because we thought it just could not be as good without him.
Three months after the sad goodbyes, I reflected on what I learnt after he left the business. To my surprise we were all still fully engaged, upbeat and continued to achieve great things every day. Here is what I realized:
We had learnt from each other, so we didn’t need each other so much
When you spend time with trusted and loved friends, family and colleagues, you don’t just learn from them, you imprint some of their characteristics within yourself. Those of us that spent so much time together deliberating issues, strategizing, and putting out fires, soon could correctly second-guess each other’s responses. When you see merit it other people’s ways, you naturally start mirroring them.
I admired his positivity, and it made me more positive. He admired my confidence to follow my gut instinct, and he started to trust his more. In that way we all grew and became the things we liked best in each other; to the point that we did not need to be constantly present in each other’s lives to have a good influence.
Culture isn’t created by one person
While he was the ideas man a lot of the time, it was the team who was open to engaging and making it happen. His ideas only got the chance to thrive because the team was like-minded and wanted to make them a success. Ideas are nothing without good execution, and we were all responsible for great execution (and the odd bad one, from which we learn even more).
Because we were brave enough to try (and fail) at implementing new initiatives as a team, it encouraged others that they were safe to share their ideas, knowing that success and failures would also be shared.
There was room for others to shine
When someone is so great at what they do and always takes the lead, its intimidating for others to step up and show what they can do. We lost a great leader, but we gained a less intimidating space for those less confident people who were just waiting politely in the wings for their chance to shine without the fear of being overshadowed.
People who had never taken the lead in anything before, suddenly showed willing to step up and we discovered talents and experience that we never knew were there.
But it was not always because of fear that they didn’t push themselves forward; sometimes it was simply because they knew someone else easily had it covered. So instead of habitually relying on the same people to fulfil a role, we should have given others the space to try.
It will never be the same, but ‘different’ can move you to better things
There is no point in trying to replace an individual with a replica; they will always be compared, deemed a cheap copy, and you are setting them up to fail, especially when their predecessor was so well loved. So instead, we took the opportunity to strengthen those areas that he wasn’t so focused on, and hired someone that could fill the gaps and bring improvements there. Based on point 1 above, if we have absorbed some of his great traits within us all, then we didn’t necessarily need to replace those qualities anyway.
Of course, none of this reflects badly on our lost leader. In fact, our ability to move on so easily is the greatest reflection of what a good leader he was. He helped create our nurturing, positive environment of engaged people, who strive for better, want to learn from each other, collaborate well, identify that everyone has something to offer and carve out opportunity from unexpected lose.