September 14, 2012

On Leadership

What Is Leadership?

Leadership is a special quality that instills in others the desire and confidence to follow someone - in business, in battle or in life. It is a personality trait that can be developed, if those who would lead others truly care about their purpose, and those who follow them.

We've all known people who we trust to show us the way through the obstacles and dangers of life, and most of us also know those who we wouldn't trust to show us how to take a nap. Leadership is not automatic, and being in charge of others may technically make someone a 'leader', but it does not magically grant them leadership abilities or skills.

But I'm The Boss!

Too often, people who are placed in a position of authority confuse this position with leadership. Many times these people become power hungry, or obsessed with their feelings of superiority over the 'peons' that they are in charge of. They tend to become tyrannical dictators who try to rule with an iron fist and threats of punishment .. and never really master the art of leadership. They become villains and end up being despised by those they should be inspiring.

People may obey out of fear, but loyalty is earned through respect and trust. I would rather have one loyal follower willing to stand by me, than a hundred obedient servants ready to run the minute I let go of the chains. Once someone in charge of others learns this simple lesson, they are on their way to becoming true leaders.

In our lives, we are always going to answer to someone. Parents, teachers, bosses ... and if we are fortunate we will get to follow, and look up to, true leaders who will guide us and give us knowledge, support and a road-map toward success.  In my life, I have had the honor of being a leader in many things, and I have also had the pleasure of working for and following some wonderful people.

The thing that I think makes most of them so great in my mind, is that they all truly cared about not only what they were doing, but about those they were leading. From the teacher who recognized and encouraged my love of mathematics, to the boss who showed me how to thread a steel pipe the right way, these leaders were supportive, if demanding, and imparting their knowledge on how to do something correctly was as vital to them as making sure it just got done.

In my latest employment adventure, I work as a graveyard cashier/gas attendant/janitor for a local convenience store. During this time, I have gotten to work for both one of the best young managers I've ever met, and one of the worst assistant managers imaginable, when it comes to embodying this ideal of leadership. As an example, here are two typical messages that might have been left for the employees. See if you can tell which one was written by someone who is a true leader:

"Anyone caught giving away free coffee refills will be wrote up!" (actual spelling!)

"Attention all: We really need to make sure we card everyone. The Liquor Control people are performing stings, and failing one could cost you your job, a big fine, and possible prosecution. Make sure you are checking everyone's ID's. Thanks!"

As you can see, one of these people gets it, and the other one just doesn't.

Leadership Can Be Learned

When I was a very young man, I was hired by a great husband and wife team to be an assistant manager in their restaurant. I was only 17 years old, and was still serving part time in the Army Resrve, but they took a chance on me.

Part of the training that I received was of course the hands-on part of running a restaurant, but for me the part that made the biggest difference was a series of lectures and classes on how to manage others successfully. These were given by a man that at first glance didn't appear very much like a leader. He was large, had bad acne, a facial tic, and a nasally voice - yet he was the most popular manager in the entire corporate structure, and was wise beyond his years. Sadly, Phillip passed away not long after I learned these life lessons from him.

It has been a long time now, since I was that fresh-faced teenager, trying so desperately to make my new employers proud of me, but I still remember the titles of some of those classes - and I still use those lessons in my life today. Here is a short list of some of them ... and the lessons they contained:

Doctors Don't Do What Nurses Can, or How To Delegate.  Leading doesn't mean doing the work for the other person, but knowing how and when to let them do their job, so you can spend your time doing yours.  A doctor's time should be spent in diagnosing, treating and healing as many people as possible, not in applying bandages or emptying bedpans.

When Good People Do Bad Things. When reprimanding a subordinate, always correct the behavior or attitude, never the person. You cannot disciple someone for being who they are, only for doing what they did, or they way they did it.

The Carrot and The Stick, or Why Dog Trainers Carry Treats. People who are bullied and threatened into doing something will resent it every step of the way, as they are pushed along. Those who are lead with incentive will follow the path willingly, if they can see their goal, and if they are rewarded for a job well done.

I'm not attempting here to teach anyone all of the lessons that I learned during my time as a young manager, but you can see that a lot of the messages that were handed out had important uses in more than just the restaurant business.

Phil, you grinning sweet monster, thank you for the
wisdom you gave me, and the belief you had in me.

Follow Me!

At the end of the day, it is important to remember that the best leaders are those who lead by example, those who teach by experience and those who care enough to actually jump up, say 'Take my hand, let me show you the way,' and then become our guides. They don't have to try and scare us into submission, but instead they expect us to be the best we can be, and in doing so, they make us expect nothing less from ourselves.

The spirit of true leadership comes from within, a belief that comes to you

From Grandpa's Heart ...