When I handed him his change, I knew he had been doing work I had never done – and a lot of it.  I was working a summer job at a miniature golf course in a rural community.  On Friday and Saturday nights, the course was packed with young couples and families out for dinner and recreation.  This guest’s hands were past leather, approaching sandpaper, thick and muscular with almost no bend to his fingers, just cradling the change and a brightly colored golf ball.  It was nothing I could reference personally with my private school education and my father’s office job – blisters every time we would rake or shovel.  I did not know if this was a farmer, mechanic, or factory worker.  All I knew is that he had to have been working hard at whatever it was.  From that point on I knew that hard work shows – there’s no fooling anyone!

Some Unusual Signs of Hard Work

Sometimes the mark of hard work is obvious, like when you listen to great musicians.  The great ones have a fluidity and range to their music that is distinctively beyond the average hack.  Other times, you must pay close attention.  My son played the tuba in the high school marching band.  One day during his senior year he proudly showed me his “hump” – a prominently overdeveloped area of his trapezius muscle.  The muscle had responded to localized stress of supporting the instrument for hours on end – for four years.  Check out the index fingers of basketball players and football wide receivers – twisted and mangled from receiving high-velocity balls.  Bird and Kobe were famous for it.  Two hard-working guys.  I bet you can think of plenty of your own.  Even in the most subtle ways, hard work shows – there’s no fooling anyone.

Leaders Who Have Done The Work – Tell Tale Signs

I reflected on this topic recently after leading a group leadership session on working in your strength zones.  It is not enough to have strengths.  We must work hard in strength zones to fully realize out potential.  Strength zones is a whole other topic.  For today, I want to consider those distinctive characteristics of leaders who have put in the hard work.  Not people who have held positions of responsibility for extended periods of time, but people who have truly dedicated themselves to leading others well.  Here are several that strike me.  I am sure you can think of more.


Equanimity is an SAT prep word that means that leaders who put in the work rarely offer emotional responses to high-stakes situations.  That’s not to stay that they are unemotional people because the great leaders I have known are in fact very passionate about their causes and love the people that follow them deeply.  Rather, they have been in enough pressure-packed situations to know that the emotional response is counter-productive.  When confronted with a disappointment or a conflict, they are much more likely to ask pointed questions than rush to immediate judgment.


Leaders who have put in the work have an extraordinary sense of where their work ends, and your work begins.  Part of that is respect for the person.  It has a lot more to do with maximizing every minute of their day.  One behavior in particular that I have noticed over the years is that seasoned leaders rarely leave meetings with papers.  No matter how many Powerpoint slides, graphs, and charts may be offered to them in meetings, what stands out to me is that the great leaders neither enter nor leave meetings with papers.  To me, that’s a telling sign of boundary-building.

Consistent Success

Just look at the track record.  Leaders who have put the work develop systems that ensure consistent success.  Not just operational systems, but navigational systems and systems for recruiting and developing talent.  I am admittedly a “homer” on this one, but when it comes to consistent high performance, I know of no better example than legendary basketball coach Dean Smith.  Coach Smith had 27 consecutive 20 win seasons from 1970 to 1997 and finished in the top three in the ACC for 33 consecutive years.  He broke Adolph Rupp’s seemingly unbreakable record for career wins, retiring as the winningest coach in NCAA Division One history.

It is fun to reflect on the record, but the work that went into it may be the most legendary part of Dean Smith’s coaching history.  He studied game film and practice films tirelessly, not only to improve each player’s performance but also to define risks and opportunities and produce innovations that would keep his teams on top.


Legacy is not your own list of accomplishments.  It is how the leader’s successful practices live on in others’ lives long after they have retired.  Leaders who have put the work in have spent a great deal of it investing in others that they might have their own successes.  The truly secure leaders hope that their mentees will have even greater success than they have had.  In Corporate America, look at the Tiger Cubs – hedge fund managers groomed by the legendary Julian Robertson of Tiger Management.  Despite closing Tiger Management over 20 years ago, Robertson has mentored 38 hedge fund managers active today.

If you like sports, your probably are used to talking about “coaching trees”.  Since I am bleeding Carolina Blue today, it is interesting to note that Coach Roy Williams now has more wins than his mentor Dean Smith.  In the spirit of leadership legacy, I am sure that Dean Smith is proud.

There is a wide gap between having a leadership position and being a leader.  Hard work shows – there’s no fooling anyone!