Lessons in Leadership
Each of us is capable of only a finite level of output, we all face limitations of time, knowledge and (whisper it) talent. However, if we lead effectively and empower our colleagues to grow and take responsibility then a force multiplier comes into effect that exponentially boosts the available potential in our teams and organisations. Aside from productivity in the moment, such an approach also fulfils the basic obligation that good leaders feel — to develop those they are working with and to help them in their personal journeys. Our development as leaders starts far earlier than we might suspect however…
The workplace is the main situation that many think of when considering the term “leadership” but in truth our education in leadership starts years before. We are all exposed to lessons in leadership from a young age, even if we don’t realise it at the time. Interactions with our parents provide formative concepts of hierarchy, caring and of how someone in authority can make us feel good — or bad — about ourselves. As we get older our teachers play a similar role. Playing sports or engaging in other group activities also helps us to start putting together the pieces of our personal leadership jigsaw puzzles. So, are leaders born or are they made? Nature or nurture? The answer is a little of both. As with many skills, the best leaders combine varying levels of natural talent, hard work and study of the craft.
We have all been in situations where we have questioned the leadership we are under. Those of us who are lucky will also be able to recall situations where we enjoyed good or even excellent leadership. We can take lessons from both positive and negative experiences. A familiar scenario to many will be the absentee leader, a manager who was there in body but not in spirit and who did not provide assistance or support. Far from being a waste of our time these often frustrating situations actually provide us with a learning opportunity, we don’t only learn from our own mistakes but also from the mistakes of others. If you have a leaning towards leadership then the chances are that in such instances you were spotting the mistakes being made and thinking “It would have been better if they had handled it this way”. Hold on to those lessons — knowing what not to do can be a strong guiding force for you in the future. History is a great teacher; apply the lessons of your past to your actions of today. Remember the things that caused decreased motivation in a team and don’t make those same errors.
On the other side of the equation, we can of course learn a great deal from good leaders. Sometimes this may be in the form of structured, ongoing coaching but in many instances it will simply be through one off events. Looking back at some of the leaders that I have been fortunate enough to work with it is perhaps surprising that the things that have had the greatest effect on me can be summed up through a single sentence that they spoke or a single event. The other thing that stands out is that when I have later recounted these instances to them and thanked them for the effect that they have had on me they have universally been surprised that I had benefitted so much from what they saw as small actions. The lesson here is clear, leadership isn’t all about grand gestures, it is day-to-day interactions that make the difference.
So what were the seismic events that those leaders shifted my horizons with? The first was a situation when I was working in a small company as a junior member of staff and was in daily contact with the business owner. One day I was carrying out a repetitive task for a number of hours and unbeknown to me the business owner was observing me. The first I knew of it was when he came out of his office and declared that he couldn’t watch me doing such a boring task all day as he had always hated it when he did it in the early days of the company. He moved me on to more interesting work and completed the remainder of the task himself! What was the lesson here? It challenged my rigid understanding of hierarchy and showed me how a single action can motivate even a fully engaged employee to do better.
Another situation that had a lasting effect on me was also simple but incredibly powerful — my first experience of empowerment. Some years after the first example I was working at a company that I felt had the potential to exploit a niche in a particular market so I put together a rudimentary plan and approached my manager with it. To my surprise, he immediately said that I should pursue it and assigned someone to support with sales on a part time basis. He also stated that we should meet regularly to see how things were progressing. Furthermore, I should let him know if I needed anything or wanted to bounce ideas around “…and don’t worry if it costs us a little bit to explore the opportunity.” This was revolutionary for me at such a young age; I was being trusted to explore a market that was outside of my contractual remit. Suddenly my job was bigger, it was more “mine” and I had to make something work. I was motivated not only by my own desire to succeed but also to repay the faith shown in me. I had to learn quickly about strategy, sales and marketing — this was real business. You guessed it — the leader who had such a profound effect saw the trust and encouragement he showed me as no big deal when I brought it up years later.
These instances and others like them have affected not only me but also others since then as they have had an ongoing impact on my own perceptions and decision making. As such, insightful and empowering leadership is its own self-perpetuating legacy. When you take positive lessons from a leader don’t forget to pay it forward — you may well be inspiring someone else to do the same in the future.