brian lyonsMy brother-in-law Brian Lyons died in a motorcycle accident last week. He was 42 years old. 

I’ll spare you the personal side of this tragedy and focus instead on some workplace perspective I gained from the reaction of colleagues to his death.

Leading by teaching
Brian and I didn’t really talk much about work. Kinda odd perhaps since we worked in the same industry (he was the co-founder, CEO, and CTO of Number Six Software). But during family gatherings, it seemed more appropriate to discuss food and fireworks (he was a big fan) than “The Mythical Man Month.”

I knew he was what you’d consider an “expert.” He grew his company from a small startup to a 150+ employee operation. He wrote books, papers, and articles. He spoke at conferences. He was considered an authority on the Rational Unified Process, Eclipse Process Framework, Service Oriented Architecture and Agile.  

But you don’t really know what someone is like at work if you don’t work with them. So the emotional reaction of his colleagues surprised me a bit. They showed up in droves at the funeral services and tearfully recalled the impact he had on their lives.

They didn’t talk about him as a boss or an expert. They talked about him as a mentor and a friend. How he always had time to answer the questions of even the newest employee. The calls of support he’d make before and after someone took a certification exam. The way he reached out to compliment someone on a thoughtful blog post. And they chuckled at his everpresent sense of humor, like the time he showed up at a team-building cooking class in a chef’s outfit. Several people told me the same thing: “He led by caring.”

Tributes at his company blog
His coworkers have been posting tributes to him at the company blog. Here’s a typical entry:

I was surprised that a CEO would come right over to answer the questions of a new employee whom he had never met. I was also amazed that, despite my simplistic inquiries, he answered with detail and zest. Ensuing weeks witnessed similar gestures – notices about webinars; critiques of the webinars; advantages and disadvantages of use cases and activity diagrams; the pace of development cycles; and the integration of testing with development. Here clearly is a CEO who wants to develop his employees.

The morning of my RUP exam he somehow knew I was taking it and found the time to wish me luck and to answer any questions I may still have had. After the exam he offered his congratulations…Here is a leader who cares about his people.

Here’s another one…

What will last longer is remembering his complete lack of ego and his passion for helping others grow.  About 18 months ago I was brainstorming with Brian on use-case modeling and the requiremements management process.  Brian was firing question after question at me.  One part of me was thinking “I give up Brian just tell me the answer” but the other part was relishing that he wasn’t going to give up.  Brian knew that it is not enough to impart knowledge, you also have to give others the capability and confidence to do that themselves. 

Other posts offer similar thoughts: “I guess I never really thought of him as the CEO as much as a mentor and friend.”...”Many people can usually recall a teacher that had some kind of significant impact on them. Brian was one such person to me.” Etc.

The way you treat people is the legacy you leave
There are different ways to lead. Some people get results by yelling and bullying. But it’s even more impressive when someone can motivate people by teaching and caring. When you do that, you’re a successful leader and a successful human being.

So maybe someone out there will read this and decide to take a little extra time to help a colleague, answer a question, or reach out to someone in need of help. I think Brian would like that a lot.