June 2017

The Boss' Gift of Leadership

By Rolly Dessert

When I met my first boss, I did not know what to expect. We sat in his office and he initiated the conversation with some small talk. Then he gave me my assignment and said, "I want you to take charge of your team. I will hold you responsible for everything your team does or fails to do." That was standard for a boss to use in orienting a new team member, as well as clear guidance.

Then he said something that has stuck with me. "Several times a day, I want you to ask yourself two questions. One is, 'What am I doing that I should not be doing?' The other is, 'What am I not doing that I should be doing?'" He paused and said, "Once you determine what you should or should not be doing, take action. I won't be there to tell you what to do. Do the right thing. That is what leaders do, and you are a leader."

He got me thinking. He was no longer a mystery, and I was starting to learn how he thinks. I was already asking myself questions: Will I measure up to being the leader he expects me to be? Will I have the necessary judgment to do the right thing? What happens if I do not measure up, and I fail? What will he do?

Then he caught me off guard as he said, "I'm a realist. I don't expect you to be perfect. I know you will fail at some things. But I want you to give me your best effort always. Take risks and learn from your mistakes. You are free to fail."

You are free to fail. I did not expect to hear those words. They kept playing over and over in my mind as I imagined how he would view a mistake. Could I trust him? Or was he a 'zero defects' guy in disguise, more interested in perfection? Only time would tell. We finished our conversation and I went to work.

For the next year, I did make mistakes. A few were repeat mistakes. The boss coached me about my weaknesses. He explained that weaknesses are not fatal but they impact one's capability and job competence. I was to work incrementally at overcoming weaknesses in order to improve as a leader. Improve as a leader, and the team gets better at accomplishing its mission. I was thankful for his feedback.

At one point, he coached me: "I like your sense of urgency. It is a strength of yours, keeping you and your team from getting complacent. But take care not to overuse that strength or any other. Drawing on strength requires a careful sense of when and how to use it. If you rely too much on a strength, you may be missing the opportunity to develop yourself in other areas."

Two years later, I was in an audience listening to a senior executive speak about what he expected of leaders. This is what he told us:

As I listened to those expectations for leaders, I realized that my first boss just two years earlier had set a solid foundation for my future assignments.

He had coached me during my first experiences of growing as a professional, developing my proficiency, becoming a teacher, holding myself responsible and accountable, listening to others, and taking care of people. My first boss had shared his gift of leadership. It all started when he took the time to reflect and answer the question: "What do I want as the boss?"

At Academy Leadership, we show the power of a leadership philosophy in explaining the how and why behind your actions as a leader. We will help you clarify your thinking, and become more consistent and predictable in your leadership. Then, in time, you will become more credible and trustworthy to the people on your team.

Reprinted with permission.