An article by Vilis Ozols, MBA, CSP
This article has been published in numerous newsletters, trade journals and company publications.
You are sitting in a training session and you certainly don’t want to be there. You have a pile of paperwork still sitting on your desk back at the office, you don’t trust your employees to run the joint without you, and you can just picture your e-mail and voice mail filling up as you sit in the corporate classroom. You don’t even have a choice about being here because this is one of those mandatory leadership training classes you’ve learned to dread.
The trainer is a guy you haven’t seen before who looks too young, too athletic and wearing too nice a suit to know anything about leadership. You prepare to tune out before he even says a word because, after all, what can you learn from this kid when you’ve “been there and done that”— and he obviously hasn’t?
Without much preamble The Kid at the front begins. “Today you will learn more about leadership from yourself, than you can ever learn from me!”
“Ain’t that right!” You say to yourself.
“Rather than me telling you what I think leadership is all about,” The Kid continues, “I’d like us to delve into our own versions of what leadership is about.”
“Oh, no!” You think in horror, “The dreaded ‘group exercise’ to start the day!”
“And it won’t be in the dreaded ‘group exercise’ format either.” Says the now-looking-slightly-more-mature-to-you kid, with a knowing grin.
You sit up a little to hear where he’s going with this as he gives you the instructions.
“I’d like you to complete a sentence based upon your own experience and background. The sentence is simply this: The best boss I ever had was a person who …”
You roll your eyes and look at your neighbor who mirrors your attitude exactly. You casually look around for more support but everyone else seems to be contemplating deep thoughts and some are already writing furiously. You look back at your neighbor and you see that you’ve lost her, too, to the “complete the sentence” exercise. Without much of an effort your thoughts drift back to the best boss you ever had, and, you too, start to formulate an ending to the sentence that best describes the character trait of your mentor from not so long ago.
You write quickly and even with your slow start you’re done before a majority of your coworkers. You start to look around at some of your neighbors’ answers to see what sort of descriptions they’ve put down on paper, knowing all the while that yours is the most valid.
“I see that most of you are done” The Kid intones, “and I notice that more that a few of you are already looking at your neighbors’ responses to see what they’ve written.”
“Boy this is starting to get scary” you think, and you look at The Kid and realize he’s really not that young and, who knows, maybe this might be a worthwhile day after all.
“If you’re so inclined, what I’ll ask us to do next is to just share with your neighbors sitting at the same table what it is that you wrote. If possible, enhance your written answer by giving a specific example of how that person from your past did what it is you described.”
You hear your coworkers, all with some of the same supervisory concerns as you, start to share vivid examples of thoughtful, capable, competent, nurturing, mentoring leadership prototypes and you start to feel something akin to envy.
“Wouldn’t it be nice if those kind of people were in leadership positions here in our organization?” You think wistfully.
The kid calls the group back to order and very seriously intones “Wouldn’t it be nice if the kind of people you just described were in leadership positions here in this organization?”
You nod your head in affirmation along with the others in the group.
“Well, today’s session is geared towards helping each of us to be just a little more like the person you just wrote about. Here’s what I’ll ask you to do. Everyone just reread to yourself what you have just written down.”
“Now rate or measure yourself in terms of how would your employees rate or measure you in that character trait or leadership characteristic.”
You start to feel, along with your coworkers, the self-evident truth of your leadership challenge. It seems as for the first time in a while you have a very defined leadership goal and perspective now.
This approach is effectively used time and again by many leadership trainers. The basic truths revealed by our own leadership examples from our own past are often the most powerful. Surprisingly enough, many of these leadership characteristics or attributes are common and are repeated over and over again by groups like this all across the nation.
See if any of these character traits that follow apply to the best boss you ever had. Even more important, see if any of these traits apply to you, as rated by your employees as ‘the best boss I ever had?’
The best boss I ever had was a person who …
Listened to me. This simple trait surfaces over and over again. The basic reality is that employees are very judgmental about their leaders based solely upon the perception of their listening skills. How well do you tune-in to your employees?
Cared about my success. This is an attitude rather than a particular leadership skill. Do you care about the success of your employees or are you somehow focused on trying to control them or get the most out of them in terms of productivity?
Let me do my job the way I thought it needed to be done. No one likes to be micro-managed. When a leader allows us the latitude to do a job ourselves they actually gain productivity from us, their employees. The best bosses facilitate this by being very clear about what’s important and what are critical success components of a job or project. When the boundaries are clear, decision-making is easy.
Let me make mistakes. This is one of the traits of great leaders. They do allow their employees to make mistakes. Even more important, they treat those mistakes as learning opportunities not as chances to punish their employees. An effective approach that will change the way you deal with employee errors is to challenge yourself, before an employee encounter, with this standard: Am I being punitive or am I being developmental?
Saw potential in me. This is very similar to the earlier trait of Cared about my success. It is very much an attitude and a perspective of great leaders. The secret, if there is one, is that great leaders are always looking for potential in subordinates, or similarly, for strengths or success attributes. Many managers are so busy doing their jobs today that they would not recognize an employee’s strength or success attribute if it bit them on their budget report. Think of your employees as individuals and see if, for each of them, you can come up with a defining strength or success attribute. It is actually pretty easy if you just set out to look for them.
Challenged me. ‘Expectations breed results’ might be one of the most powerful leadership credos around. What do you really expect from your employees? Bosses who challenge their employees will get not only increased results but also get increased loyalty and commitment from their employees.
Taught me. The unfortunate reality of today’s “doing more with less” work environment is that many bosses are too busy to take the time to teach employees the proper or most effective way to do their jobs. The even more unfortunate reality is that they are really too busy to not take the time to teach employees properly. This is one of those leadership traits that too often we don’t recognize on our job description — Your job as a boss is to teach and train your employees to do the job the best that they can.
Had a sense of humor. Successful executives at all levels are learning that one of the most powerful survival skills for a leader is to have a sense of humor. How often have we been guilty of taking the job too seriously? In fact, an INC. Magazine survey of the INC. 500 executives rated a sense of humor as one of the most critical executive survival skills.
Shared information with me. Today’s frenetic management pace often relegates employees to the mushroom treatment: Feed them bits of manure and leave them in the dark. Poor communication is structurally inherent in most every organization. It is the job of a boss to continuously communicate pertinent information to their employees. Do you have a communication strategy for sharing pertinent information … continuously?
Knew the job inside out. The reality of today’s employee is that they are too smart to respect a boss who believes: “Do as I say not as I do.” Today’s employee is as good at recognizing competency as they are at recognizing incompetence. The bottom line for any boss is the ‘Management By Walking Around’ approach: You need to be doing what it is your employees do at least 15 to 30 minutes a day. Yes, you are too busy to do this. And, yes again, you are too busy to not do this!
You leave the leadership seminar somewhat invigorated. You have your action plan of what you’re going to try to do differently, and it is not as if it will be that hard to do. Most of it is common sense and stuff that you’ve been just too busy to do or notice. But you know from your own experience that it’s going to be the right way to approach things.
You think back on the trainer, The Kid as you called him. Boy, he’s one smart dude, you think. You even copied down his phone number and e-mail, just in case you run into an issue that you might want his insight on. Somehow you can’t help thinking that you didn’t really need a day with The Kid to straighten out your act. You knew most of this stuff already.
And then thinking back, you start to grin ear-to-ear as you recall how you had completed the sentence this morning: The best boss I ever had was a person who helped me reach my full potential by pulling out the best in me even though I didn’t necessarily recognize I had it there in me.
“We need to have that kid back to do training more often!” You think.