Leadership and Engagement: Is it Really That Simple?

My sense is that everybody, everywhere has a deceased relative from a previous generation that the rest of the family sits around periodically and admires. It also hits me how rarely those reflective exchanges are characterized by discussions of documented accomplishment. They have a tendency to favor the emotional aspects of the legacy with an emphasis on what the person stood for, how they lived their life and how they would respond to the challenges everybody is currently trying to work their way through.

I am quietly honored in these settings when my father (Keith Shriver) becomes the focus of those exchanges. Here is what I observe when that happens:

  • I have one “kid” who can barely hear my dad’s name without tearing up with positive sentiment
  • I have two others that aren’t far behind
  • I also have a mother-in-law and wife that are becoming increasingly comfortable (40 years later) sharing that the thing that sold them most on me … was him!

The terms that are typically offered to describe his approach to life do not require a whole lot of intellectual versatility to wrap your head around. He was simple. He was dependable. He consistently exhibited high standards of integrity.

One of the first opportunities I can remember where I observed these traits in action happened when I was about 7. He worked as an interior mechanic for Continental Airlines and found a wallet a passenger had left behind in a first-class seat pocket. The wallet contained about $3,000 in cash—which I know for a fact went a heck of a long way in 1962 (especially for a guy bringing home about $30K a year!). I recall my mother telling me my dad immediately turned the wallet over to the proper authorities, and it found its way back to the grateful person who had left it behind. This left me with the kinds of questions a 7-year-old has for his father, which led me to initiate what wound up being a very brief (but memorable) discussion:

  • ME: “Mom said you found a wallet on a plane.”
  • HIM: “I did.”
  • ME: “She said there was $3,000 in it.”
  • HIM: “Sounds about right.”
  • ME: “Did you ever think about keeping it?”
  • Him: “Nope.”
  • Me: “Really? How come?”
  • Him: “It wasn’t mine.”

As I made my way through adolescence (and all the inherent struggles that came with it), my dad evolved into sort of a “philosophical man of mystery.” Instead of telling me what to do or not do, when I came to a fork in the road of life, he would offer up a series of introspective clichés that I quietly used to mock, or immediately disregard, or pretend had no relevant meaning. For example:


  • “To thine own self be true.” (not an original, but he quoted it so frequently Shakespeare probably would have granted him rights)
  • “Don’t forget what to keep your head out of.” (unquestionably an original!)
  • “You can’t B.S. the man you’re shaving.” (which really had nothing to do with being a man … or shaving … it applied to anyone, anywhere that spent any time whatsoever looking at themselves in a mirror and examining the soul of the person looking back)

The fact of the matter was that these parenting platitudes always made sense and have certainly stuck with me. The older I have become, and the more depth I try to build in the dynamics of things like leadership and employee engagement, the more I have come to truly appreciate the wisdom of Keith Shriver—and so many others like him!

Consider in that regard the words of Marshall Goldsmith who has spent the better part of 50 years traveling around the world to develop his perspective on these topics as well:

  • “Leadership is common sense … but it is by no means common practice!”
  • “Engagement magically appears at the intersection of personal responsibility and employee-centered leadership!”

I would offer that truer words have never been spoken! Which is probably why, when we see evidence of leaders producing results of significance and enhancing employee engagement along the way, we stop and take notice! What we find (almost invariably) are brave and dedicated people that dependably execute simple strategies with profound integrity: leaders like Frances Hesselbein and Alan Mulally.

Frances Hesselbein is the former CEO of the Girl Scouts of the USA and Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient who has received 22 honorary doctoral degrees. When you try to press her into providing you with the secrets of her leadership style, she goes all “Keith Shriver” on you:

  • “Leadership is a matter of how to be, not how to do!”

In other words, as we search for transferable relevance, leadership is an inside-out process! If you aren’t comfortable with the person staring back at you from the mirror, how can you reasonably expect anyone else to be either? And, when you ask Frances Hesselbein about how she came to develop that perspective, she is quick to tell you a priceless story about her grandmother, a man named Mr. Yee and a pair of vases that remain prominently displayed on a mantle in her living room to this day:

Alan Mulally’s exploits as an executive leader are well documented and often chronicled—for a reason! At Ford, he was given credit for orchestrating the most prolific turnaround in corporate history. But he would be the first person to tell you that was not the case! In his words:

  • “I did not turn Ford around; the people of Ford turned Ford around!”

While that assessment is certainly accurate, it is also true that the people of Ford achieved that outcome by mastering Mulally’s Working Together: Principles, Practices and Management System.

In essence, that is a system he began learning about from his parents as he grew up and made his way through the world. It is a system that is grounded in a foundation of service to, and love of, others. It is simple (to understand!). It not only involves but actively includes everyone (literally). It puts people first, and it leverages facts and data to calibrate each step of the performance journey with zero tolerance for anyone that doesn’t respect, listen to or appreciate others. Google Alan and read more about “Working Together.” It is impossible to imagine employee engagement being anywhere but “through the roof” in any environment that  employs his system.

It strikes me, based on this admittedly selective review, that perhaps we make more of all things leadership and engagement than we need to. We take simple things we learned long ago from people we loved and respected, and we complicate them under the auspices of discovery. The resultant effect is that we divert our attention from mustering the courage to simply execute what we already know to be true.

Further, I would offer, based on direct observation, that the “Keith Shrivers” of the world (and thankfully they are all over the place!) routinely assume responsibility for things like their work-related engagement. I think they do that as a matter of personal dignity. They inherently realize that sooner or later they are going to have a quiet moment in front of a mirror and place an abundance of value on liking what they see! And, when people like that are fortunate enough to find themselves working for leaders like Frances Hesselbein or Alan Mulally, you know what happens? Magic! It really is just that simple!