I’d like to talk about Danny Leclerre, a French-speaking Belgian, whom I met twenty years ago. As a commercial director of a global company, I was responsible for the commercial organization in the Benelux. Before I arrived, the organization used to be decentralized, split into three. Danny Leclerre spoke French but his Flemish was limited. However, as a sales manager, he was responsible for the entire country of Belgium. I wondered whether that was a wise choice or not.
When I met Danny, I liked him from the start. He was an OK guy. A bit older, in his late fifties, also a bit of an introvert. Business wasn’t going very well in Belgium, resulting in a small (profit) loss. I convinced Danny that he should give up his role as a sales manager and continue as key account manager, mainly in Wallonia, and that went very well.
I’ve been practicing Zen Buddhism for a long time and I’ve also done some martial arts, learning some ancient fighting techniques this way. Two years after I met Danny, I discovered that he was doing Aikido, a Japanese martial art that has deep philosophical roots. A martial art that requires a lot of inner harmony. On top of that, Danny Leclerre was not just doing some Aikido, he turned out to be a fifth or sixth dan! So imagine this somewhat quiet, older man turning out to be at the world’s top of that extraordinarily noble martial art. Something he could only have achieved after years of practice and dedication.
I never suspected this. Danny was able to do something my colleagues and I could never come close to. Within the organization, Danny had a modest role. When I found out about his exceptional quality, I started applying it. Once a year, we had a big meeting with the entire Benelux team. I asked Danny to give a demonstration of Aikido, his hidden strength. That was amazing and super cool for him as well. He was shining. He was immensely proud to show his colleagues what he was capable of doing. It was very impressive.
When I left the organization six years later, I had a farewell party in a pub. Danny Leclerre also came. And what did he bring? His Japanese truncheon that he always used. It was his gift to me. That was very touching.
The tremendously wise lesson I learned from my relationship with Danny Leclerre is this: as a manager, be aware that the modest role that employees sometimes occupy within the functional hierarchy of your organization is not always representative of who these people are and what they can offer in terms of talent, depth and inner strength. Being human is much more than the position. As a leader, you need to have an eye for that, so that individuals get the opportunity to make a larger contribution to the overall organization.