It’s hard to define good leadership, but we all know it when we see it in action. Leaders we truly respect inspire us with their vision and feel trustworthy in both their personal and professional lives. They are smart strategists but also have a balanced sense of themselves – brilliant but not arrogant. And most important, they are able to genuinely connect with, and respect the people they aspire to lead.
In late November John Wilhelm, the highly regarded president of the national hotel workers’ union (UNITE-HERE), stepped down from his position at the age of 67 to make way for a new generation of leaders in his organization. During John’s tenure the union developed a deep bench of committed worker-leaders, organizers and strategists who he helped recruit and nurture over his 43 years with the organization. John populated this bench by sharing information, skills and decision-making with those he developed while expecting the highest standards of effectiveness and hard work.
The talent within UNITE-HERE now exists in many regions of the country and levels of the union, and includes people from diverse backgrounds capable of taking the organization and its membership confidently into the future.
As a member of John Wilhelm’s generation, I know it takes courage to step down from a leadership position and trust those who come after to do the job as well or better than you have. Giving up the perks of leadership (as well as the responsibilities and pressures) also requires a remaking of one’s self-concept and identity. As hard as leading can be – retiring can also be difficult.
Many older members of the Boomer generation are holding on to senior positions in universities, government and industry without a thought to cultivating their younger replacements. This has negative implications for junior people anxious to move up but also for the staying power of the older generation’s values and skills. If they’re not transferred to a new generation of leaders, they won’t endure.
John Wilhelm is modeling what good leadership means – both holding it and letting it go – with the confidence that a lifetime of work will be carried out by those he has fostered and trained.