You Don't Need To Be the Center of Attention

I reread recently an old New York Times article in which the popular actor Hank Azaria commented on how fellow actor William H. Macy had taught him that you don't always have to be the center of attention. "There is a tremendous dignity and honesty in not doing that," Azaria said. "You can really let other people have their thing. And if you do that honestly enough, it’s its own terrific thing."

One of the most frequently repeated leadership truisms is that you can get a lot accomplished if you don't mind who gets the credit, a philosophy generally attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt. But what Azaria and Macy are talking about goes even deeper I think.

I've witnessed quite a few leaders in my time who are very good at letting others get the credit, but they still somehow manage to be the focus of attention. In some cases, that's because it seemed like they were just going through the motions, giving credit to others because that's what good leaders are supposed to do. In other instances, it felt as if these individuals couldn't quite imagine maintaining their leadership position without also being the center of attention. And I am sure that at other times, some individuals genuinely did not want to command all of the attention, but those around them would not allow that to occur.

I imagine that one of the greatest challenges for individuals in high profile positions is to maintain a strong enough self-awareness, a self-regulating internal compass per se, to know when they are overshadowing or crowding out attention that others deserve. Just think about the humility and fortitude it can require to not let yourself be the object of others' attention, appreciation, and affection. Sure we all need positive feedback, and our efforts deserve to be noticed. But attention has a strange self-amplifying quality to it. Those getting attention seem to keep getting more of it in some sort of ever-increasingly spiral of envy, adulation, or appreciation. Those not noticed by others often toil away in perpetual obscurity.

The individuals I find myself most respecting are the ones who act as prisms, refocusing (when appropriate) the appreciation and attention of others on the individuals who are most directly responsible for the achievements being realized. I can only imagine that at one point in their careers they were the benefactors of similar efforts and they are secure enough in their own self-concept to shine the light on others. The example they set is one worth all of us considering.