Leadership lessons often leap from the world of sports. And so often, NOT! Today, a big NOT. I opened a news site’s sports page, it was about playoffs, and typically, it was all about stars: Kevin Durant of Oklahoma City and the showdown between Joe Thornton of the Sharks (boo!) and Ryan Kessler of the Canucks. I get so sick of the infatuation with superstars. Basketball is a consummate team sport. And in hockey, 19 of the 20 dressed players play each night. A star like Thornton will only play about a third of the game, and when he’s in, he’ll be one-sixth of the team while on the ice. There will be tens of chances every minute for guys to contribute or subtract in decisive ways. By far, by a longshot, the key moves will be team-moves: a great pass, perfect spacing, a deflection, and selfless seamless strategy. Call it Everyday Leadership. Today I call it Gerard Grant Phillips.
I knew Gerard for 24 years. Met him as a fellow campaign grunt, canvassing Detroit neighborhoods, loading signs in cars, going to Sunday afternoon meetings in Indian Village. Friday I went to his funeral. He was 55, vital, came down with pneumonia and was gone in a week. His funeral was P-A-C-K-E-D. And the messages — expressed by 20 or so who came to the mic, by Pastor Hurley Coleman, and by his close friend Eddie McDonald – were entirely consistent. Gerard made people better. Gerard was a giver. Gerard served others. And that’s why we came out en masse.
Perhaps eight different people who came to the microphone laughed, marveled and teased out one of the idiosyncracies of a very idiosyncratic guy: He addressed them all by their full name – full, including middle names. Eddie Floyd McDonald. Ronald Robinson Lockett. This practice would have been clever, if he wanted to remember names, and more clever if he wanted people to remember his name. But I don’t think he was being clever. It was just his way of seeing people, and letting them know he saw them. Sawu Bona.
“Sawu Bona” is the common greeting in isiZulu. It translates literally, “I see you.” Gerard saw people. He made them matter. Ironically, some people like Gerard Grant Phillips, everyday leaders who exist outside the spotlight, are not seen by many. Not seen by many in power, not seen by many who want power, almost never seen by the media. Compared to Kevin Durant, Joe Thornton, or Miguel Cabrera, they are . . . invisible, i.e., the opposite of “sawu bona.” Hundreds of us turned out for Gerard’s funeral. Because he made us matter. The irony was not lost on me that – given my sometime status and position – I should be the one pulling people out of the background, out of the shadows, seeing them.
I want to honor Gerard and invite you to consider one of the most amazing lines ever from an awesome everyday leader: “The more efficient a force is, the more silent and the more subtle it is. Love is the subtlest force in the world.“ Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.
Love and lead with your best self,