A leadership reflection

A leadership reflection

Recently I read a really interesting quote someone posted on LinkedIn as part of the 10 day mentoring challenge and it really changed my perspective.

"Nobody is the bad guy. Everyone is the hero of their own story. Assume that everyone is trying to do the right thing and take it from there."

Thinking back, I can think of a few times as a leader when I've tried to do the right thing, tried to be the hero, but ended up doing the wrong thing instead.

I've been fortunate in my career to have worked for some outstanding leaders (also some pretty lousy ones too, but that's a different story).

One of the most impressive leaders I've worked for was my first. The head of the school where I started my teaching career, a man called John North. What made John so brilliant to work for was he made me feel bullet proof. Whilst working for him, I felt I could go out and try new things, experiment with new ways of doing things and, most importantly, learn. He was my bullet proof vest.

When things didn't work out, when parents complained, he'd sort it. He'd shield me from harm. I can't explain how empowering and liberating that felt.

So when I first started out in leadership, I used John as my role model. I decided that my job was to protect my team, to be their shield. I'd take on the tough tasks, handle the awkward and prickly clients and take care of any messy and difficult situations. I'd be my teams hero and we'd go on to achieve great things.

But here's the thing, it didn't happen. In my preoccupation with shielding my people from any and all challenges I drastically limited their ability to learn and to develop.

You see, we all need to stretch ourselves, to operate in a place on the edge of our abilities and comfort zones if we want to learn and develop. For all my good intentions, I was taking away these key opportunities for my people to learn.

I'd misunderstood what made John a great leader. Yes he protected people when they made mistakes, but more importantly, he created an environment where his people were given opportunities to make mistakes. That's why his teams thrived.

In my efforts to be the hero, I ended up stifling my team.

So next time you're feeling frustrated with your boss, remember:

"Nobody is the bad guy. Everyone is the hero of their own story. Assume that everyone is trying to do the right thing and take it from there."

Have your say:

Who's the best boss you've ever worked for? What made them so great?

Equally, have you ever tried something with the best intentions which just didn't work out?

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  • The best people I have worked for all had great communication skills, both written and verbal, and they were accessible and approachable.  None of us are mind-readers and the only way you can find out if you're doing a good job is if you have an open channel to a boss and s/he is willing to provide feedback.  The worst leaders I ever worked with assumed that everyone knew how well or poorly they were doing and therefore they had no reason to communicate.  

    • Thanks for sharing Conor. I'm interested in this. 

      The accessible and approachable qualities you mention particularly. What can you remember from the best (or worst) leaders you've worked with in terms of what being accessible and approachable looks like in practice? What did they say or do to influence this type of culture?

      I'd love to hear more.

  • Hey Chris,

    Thanks for taking the time to post this. It's a great story and a good discussion topic. 

    I agree with you that a culture of it's okay to make mistakes is necessary to be innovative and move forward. Mistakes are going to occur with developing new ways of working. You have to wade through the stuff that doesn't quite work to get to the stuff that absolutely does.

    A leader I once worked with once said to me that 'It's okay to fail happy'. What was meant by that is if things don't quite work out, you can hold your head high for at least attempting to do something different and giving things a go. After all, if we don't change we die, someone once said. So if mistakes are an inevitable part of trying new things or learning new tasks, the trick is to expect them, work with them and learn from them.

    Sadly, not everyone seems to get that. I've seen people at senior levels but also within the ranks of teams who think it is acceptable, when things to wrong, to make that particular individual feel crap. I've seen people go to the lengths of slating people off to others in the organisation for the mistakes they have made. Let's hope these perfectionists never fall at any hurdles themselves.

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