The Dictionary is Wrong

When leadership as a concept is described, it’s frequently portrayed as a relatively abstract concept. Wrought with perceptions, feelings, emotions, and subjectivity, the concept of leadership is not universally well defined. Dictionaries classify leadership as a noun, a “thing,” meaning the function of a leader or the ability to lead. My observations and experiences tell me decisively that this definition could not be more wrong.

Leadership is most definitely an action, a verb. It is not an intrinsic quality one possesses like the feeling of being happy. Leadership is a quality that only exists if it’s manifested outwardly. Your quality of leadership is evident in everything you do. True leadership is about setting a direction and leading others, by example, toward the same end. In a discussion of management vs. leadership in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen R. Covey illustrates the difference well:

You can quickly grasp the important difference between the two if you envision a group of producers cutting their way through the jungle with machetes. They’re producers, the problem solvers. They’re cutting through the undergrowth, clearing it out.

The managers are behind them, sharpening their machetes, writing policy and procedure manuals, holding muscle development programs, bringing in improved technologies and setting up working schedules and compensation programs for machete wielders.

The leader is the one who climbs the tallest tree, surveys the entire situation, and yells, “Wrong jungle!”

But how do the busy, efficient producers and managers often respond? “Shut up! We’re making progress.”

If you’re not surveying your environment and setting direction, you’re not a leader. It doesn’t take positional authority, like a management title, to set a direction. It only takes the will to do it and a little bit of indluence.

But setting a direction and walking away doesn’t make you a successful leader. Leading by example is a critical component of leading others in the direction you’ve set. For example, if it’s important to you that people in your department start work by a certain time and end no earlier than a certain time each day, it’s important that you set the example. If people see you paying lip-service to a mission, a value, a policy, or even just an unwritten rule without following it yourself, your credibility is damaged. Damaged credibility as a manager has much bigger consequences in the long run beyond punctuality and timesheets. People may follow your rule if their job security depends on it, but they will likely resent you for it and quickly find ways to even the score with you. Every action you take as a leader sets an example, and that example can be leading people in the direction you want them to take, or it could have the opposite effect and turn people off if you’re not really leading by example.

If you’re a leader, or trying to be, and you’re frustrated by the behavior of others — take a step back and look at your own behavior. Are you asking for 110% but only giving 90%? Are you asking people to do things they see you’re not willing to do yourself? Are you asking for professionalism without exhibiting it yourself? Every action you take helps or hurts your credibility as a leader.

If leadership is an action, what are your actions saying about you?

The Platinum Rule

I got a Kindle a few weeks ago, and since then I’ve been reading basically non-stop. I flew to New York this week for business, and I spent a good portion of my time in the airport, in flight, and in cabs glued to a book I’m absolutely enthralled with! Devora Zack’s Networking for People Who Hate Networking is a great read. It’s absolutely practical if you fall under the umbrella of the title (I do!), and uses its fair share of sarcasm and humor to convey its message (I LOVE!). I will probably share more thoughts as I finish the book (I’m only halfway through, but I also only started yesterday!), but one concept stood out to me immediately.

We’ve all heard the Golden Rule before, in one of its many forms, but its most basic one is this: “Treat others as you want to be treated.” Devora turns this rule on its head with what she calls “The Platinum Rule.” To demonstrate, she uses this example:

Let’s say Rachel is out on personal leave for two weeks. An extroverted coworker, Marissa, wishes to express respect for her acquaintance. She employs the golden rule, treating Rachel as she would want to be treated. When Rachel re-emerges in the workplace, Marissa dashes over and gives Rachel an affectionate squeeze around the shoulders. “Hey Rach! So glad you are back! Hope everything is okay! If you need to talk about anything, remember my door is always open.”

How do you surmise Rachel, an introvert, is responding internally? Most likely she is feeling invaded. She does not know Marissa well. She thinks it is inappropriate for Marissa to be so chummy, and she is uncomfortable with being touched by a virtual stranger. Plus, she does not appreciate Marissa’s making a scene in front of everyone.

Now an opposite scenario. Guapo, an extrovert, has also been away for two weeks on personal leave. His introverted colleague, Josh, sees Guapo return to work on Monday morning. Wanting to be respectful, Josh treats Guapo the way he himself would want to be treated. He politely says hello, but does not behave as if there is anything unusual. Why draw attention to someone who has clearly been dealing with some personal issue?

Guapo is offended. He thinks, “How rude and insensitive of Josh! We have worked together for nearly six months, I am out of the office on personal leave, and Josh behaves as if I were here yesterday. Obviously he doesn’t care about anything but my productivity.”

Now the perils of the golden rule are illustrated. Not everyone wants to be treated identically! Devora’s “Platinum Rule” is: Treat others like they want to be treated. Obviously, this is easier said than done. If you use the golden rule framework, it’s easy. You only have to think in one dimension – how you would behave. With the platinum rule, you really have to exercise your emotional intelligence a bit and figure out how someone else would behave in that situation.

The entirety of the book is about the not-so-subtle differences in preferences, behavior, and inherent skills of introverts and extroverts. I won’t go into detail about how to spot those traits to treat people how they would want to be treated for two reasons. 1) I haven’t finished the book and wouldn’t be able to do it justice. 2) There are a lot more traits, both personality and learned, that can impact how someone wants to be treated. Culture, past experiences, age, and all of the other things that make all of us diverse and different impact the different ways we want to be treated in certain situations. An important first step is recognizing that you have to go a step further than treating people the way you want to be treated and change your frame of reference to truly show respect to others.

Thanks to Lisa Zimmerman for a great recommendation!

A Job Begun is Half Done

Mary Poppins sure was on to something when she said that. Have you ever gotten so far behind on something that just the thought of starting it puts your stomach in knots? It doesn’t entirely keep you from being productive. Maybe you go do other, smaller tasks to make yourself feel better about not doing that one thing you really need to be doing. My house is a great example. If I fall behind on picking up after myself (laundry, dishes in the sink, etc.), the thought of having to do them all at once as one big cleaning “event” is enough to make me put it off for weeks and let more stuff pile up for the inevitable cleaning event.

It’s easy to do the same thing at work. Sometimes we get so bogged down with the little day-to-day things and ad-hoc requests that we don’t have any time left to devote to getting rid of those daily annoyances. I think all of us, myself included, are programmed to do the things we’ll see immediate results from. That’s why it’s so difficult to eat well, stay motivated to exercise, save money, and other things that seem to be too taxing in the moment but provide payoffs later. In a society where technology has made instant gratification almost expected, we have a difficult time seeing past the “right now.” But have you noticed that once you get the motivation to start it, you quickly hit your stride and fly right through it?

I challenge anyone who reads this (all 3 of you) to try to look past this. Accomplish one thing you’ve been putting off, put aside little things to do the big thing that can get rid of them, and do something that won’t pay off for at least a year. I’m writing this down and publicizing it to challenge myself. Over the next week, I’m going to do 3 things:

1. Knock out the thing that inspired this post – clean the damn house already. Top to bottom.

2. Get started on a work project I haven’t had time to start doing because of all the other little things that have taken precedence  (probably won’t be posting any additional details on this one, but I’ll update on whether I actually followed through on my challenge!)

3. Do something, or at least start something, that won’t pay off for at least a year. I haven’t figured out what this is going to be yet, but I have some ideas in mind.

If you feel so inclined to take the challenge, let me know in the comments what you’ve decided to do. It’s easier to actually follow through on something if you’ve made it public and have someone to hold you accountable.

Lessons in Leadership from Laser Quest #2

I absolutely loved my job at Laser Quest. At LQ, we got a chance to have fun with our customers. Even during stressful shifts where everything was running behind and pizza deliveries were late and birthday moms were demanding, we found a way to have fun with it. It was one of those jobs where I hung out with my friends all day, entertained some kids, and then got a check at the end of the week and thought “I get paid for this?!” I really cared about my job and doing it well, and eventually my passion earned me a job as an Assistant Manager.

Even though I owe Tracey a lot of credit for taking an interest in my potential, it was our next General Manager, Nancy, who promoted me. In 2002, shortly after my 18th birthday, I became an to Assistant Manager. I had been at Laser Quest for about a year and I was still in my senior year of high school – that becomes important later.

I thought that being promoted to Assistant Manager meant 3 things:

  1. More money
  2. More money!!!!!!!!!!! (This one was exciting)
  3. Only having to do things I wanted to do, and delegating things I didn’t want to do

I quickly found out it meant a lot more than that. First of all, I found out that the reason they had waited until I was 18 to promote me was that this was the youngest age at which I could be held legally responsible for anything that happened on my watch – money missing from the safe, negligence injuries, etc. Holy responsibility, Batman! That three $3/hour raise wasn’t going to cut it if I got sued, so I figured I should probably start caring about what happened on my shifts.

The delegating thing didn’t work out so well either. I was managing people on nights and weekends, and seeing them in Spanish class in my high school during the week. When I first started, my former peers held a lot of resentment for me. The resentment was not because of my position. In fact, one of the reasons I was promoted in the first place was because I had a lot of influence among the rest of the crew members. I quickly lost any influence I had when they realized I wasn’t willing to do the things I asked them to do. I made the rookie mistake of using my position to influence, rather than continuing to lead by example which had earned me their respect in the first place. I had totally lost their respect and earned resentment in its place.

I didn’t immediately recognize what the issue was. I got frustrated during my shifts when crew would disappear just when I needed a birthday room cleaned or codenames entered into the computer. Even though we were good friends outside of work, it was getting difficult to run a smooth shift. One day, I figured out why. I arrived to work early in the middle of a busy Saturday. I put on the headset we used to communicate with the crew member managing the game in the back, and overheard two crew members who didn’t know I had come to work yet, and who were also my friends outside of work, groaning about the fact that I would be the manager on duty for the night.

I. was. pissed. For the rest of that night I steamed and gave them plenty of reasons to hate working for me – I was a high school girl so it was only natural for me to react very passive aggressively! Then I realized how miserable I was. I had made my job tougher because people hated working for me. Worst of all, I had made my life tougher because I had made my friends hate working for me, and I resented them for it. It definitely hurt our friendships. It didn’t come immediately, but once I realized I should stop ignoring that feedback and realize that for once, “it’s not you, it’s me,” might have been true, I repaired our friendships and became a better leader and manager. I’m not sure if I ever fully restored the respect I started with, but once I started cleaning the bathrooms and emptying the trash cans myself, my life (and hopefully theirs) got a lot easier.

John C. Maxwell, author of The 360° Leader, says: “A great leader’s courage to fulfill his vision comes from passion, not position.” I would add that it’s equally important for a passionate leader who ends up in a position of power not to allow that position to overshadow their passion. It’s easy to be given a position on the basis of your passion and think “Whew, this will sure make my influence a lot easier.” In fact, it will make it a lot harder. Because you have been elevated to a title you will have to constantly prove that you earned it. Always remember to lead by example, be willing to do anything you ask others to do (and show it!), and never take the respect of others for granted.

(PS – the picture is from Halloween 2002, Laser Quest was not ordinarily full of cobwebs…)