Lessons in Leadership

Most of what I have learned about leadership, I learned by watching good and bad leaders in action. Sure, I read some deep and profound books and articles, attended some amazing and inspirational workshops and seminars and even had one- on- one conversation with reputed good leaders. Still, as I reflect back over the years, it was the day to day behavior and actions of so-called leaders that had the most lasting impact on me. In this piece, I want to share with my readers the following lessons I learned and daily tried to practice.

Avoid the “iceberg of ignorance”:  More specifically, you should not isolate yourself from the people in the trenches. Your line of sight from the tip of the “iceberg of ignorance” creates blinders and obstructs your vision. You don’t see what’s happening underwater. The Titanic, a majestic ship, equipped with the most advanced technology of its time, sank because they miscalculated the massiveness of the iceberg underwater. What they saw and attempted to navigate around was the visible tip of this monstrous iceberg. While Management By Walking Around (MBWA) may feel like a dated or antiquated concept in today’s digital world, practicing it will help you keep your ear to the ground. You will hear the rumbles and feel the organizational tremors before a full-scale earthquake shakes the enterprise apart.

Practice Situational Leadership. In other words, learn to know:

A. When to stand up and when to sit down. In my view, when things are going well and team goals are being met, the leader should sit down and direct all praises and kudos to the team. On the other hand, when the team stumbles or misses opportunities, the leader should stand up and take “the bullet.” As a leader, you can still hold the team members accountable without subjecting them to public humiliation. This leadership posture builds loyalty and trust.

B. When to lead and when to follow. A good leader is first and foremost a good follower. She/he recognizes that they are not the keeper of all insights in the universe. The smart leader realizes that his/her team members are smarter in certain areas of expertise. Sometimes, all the team needs from the leader are the necessary resources to do their job both effectively and efficiently. In the literature this would resemble the ‘servant leadership’ style. In fact, any good leader is first and foremost, a situational leader. Situational leadership intuitively knows when it is appropriate to tell, sell, join or consult with their team. As Will Rogers put it, “We are all dumb, just on different subjects.”

C. When to be boss and when to be buddy. Anyone who has been promoted out the team ranks to lead their team often struggles with ‘making the shift’ from buddy to boss. Believe me, it is not an easy shift to make. Part of the problem is that as a team member we often grumbled about, criticized and second guessed the former boss. Collective carping is often the glue that holds the relationship between the worker bees together. Now, we are the boss and know how the team really has felt about being lead. This is not a disadvantage. On the contrary, it is a key advantage. Never, ever, pretend that you can no longer socialize, time permitting, with your former associates. Your first official meeting agenda should address the topic head-on. You have a new job with new deliverables and expectations. Tell them that demands on your schedule as boss might create some social distance. However, emphasize that you, intimately, know what they expect from their leader and you plan on meeting their expectations. Going forward, you should plan to have lunch, periodically, with each team member as a one-on-one debriefing and upward feedback session from them to you.

Learn from Bad and Good Bosses:  If you have been fortunate enough to have had only good bosses, good for you. However, in most careers, you will have a ‘bad’ boss or two. He or she can be surly, controlling, intimidating, aloof or just downright mean-spirited. I could list the specifics behaviors a bad boss exhibits, but to enumerate is to limit. Suffice it to say that they sap you of energy, cause you to become paranoid and/or play employee against employee. So, what can you learn from such miscreants? What I took away from my bad boss experiences was to never emulate them. In stressful times, we are tempted to become dictatorial, overly demanding or just nasty, always remember how you felt when under siege by a bad boss. One motto that I live by is “No one is completely useless; they can always server as a bad example.”

In summary, while technically and grammatically a noun, leadership in my mind is an action verb. The whole purpose of leadership is to unleash the energy, creative spirit and talents of those whom we are entrusted to lead. It’s a big job and small minded people need not apply.