Dear Leaders…

You have a mirror. Use it. Please engage in some healthy and regular introspection. Please do so when things are going poorly and doubly when things are well.

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Ice skating with my wonderful niece, Audrey, on an outdoor rink in Sacramento, CA. That last part wasn’t a typo, and I’m as surprised as you are.

A friend of mine encouraged me to read The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People when I started on sabbatical. I won’t go for a blow-by-blow critique of the book. My “Cliff’s Notes” (I’m really showing my age with THAT reference) takeaway is that even if you don’t buy into the full premise, there are certain nuggets of truth in there. This is especially true for themes of cooperation (win-win as an idea/title for one of my blogs came from there) and really listening to people. This ought to be self-evident, but he made millions by publishing that point, so I guess Mr. Covey was smarter than me. I was surprised that a CEO actually valued these traits. That also comes as a potential bias of the book; it is written from the perspective of a CEO. I digress.

That got me thinking about people in leadership positions (that, and throw 45 into the mix, but back on point again). I wonder how many “leaders” would read the book, understand the kernels of truth in there, and then actually take it to heart. I think it would be a short, short list, but perhaps I’m too pessimistic.

I’ll keep this short for my standards. As I’ve thought about “leaders” in general, this is what makes sense to me. I’ll offer brief explanations to the items.

Just because your title says you are a “leader” doesn’t mean you are one. People can be elevated to a leadership role and not know a damn thing about leading people. These people might be able to manage resources and people, but not be able to truly lead them. Those of whom you are in charge of need to be in some way inspired by your actions and words. Too many leaders try to lead by being a bully. That works in spurts, but not for the long term.

Conversely, some of the best leaders are actually in non-leadership positions. These people are able to inspire those around them by their actions, deeds, and by knowing their own strengths and limits. Just because they don’t advance by title does not diminish their ability to lead those around them.

Good leaders understand that communication is a two-way street; bad leaders give orders. I joked with the nurses that the “order sets” I had in the hospital were “polite, but urgent request sets.” If you, as a leader, keep giving orders and things aren’t going as designed, it’s time to listen to feedback, especially if you don’t want to hear it. “Those that don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

If you want to be a leader, have some principles that are not tied to dollar signs. Maybe this should have been the first item. If you are chasing dollar signs, your decisions lack meaning and clarity. Decide on some non-monetary principles first. The bucks will follow.

Leaders allow people to make mistakes, and admit when they have made one. It’s hard to get people to buy in to trying new things if they get whacked the first time something goes amiss. Conversely, if you are able to admit when (as a leader) that you made a “whoopsies” (as the Little Guard Duck would call it), you usually buy yourself more respect from those you are hoping to lead.

Good leaders engender feelings of respect first; feelings of fear are much further down the list. Leaders should strive for respect first. Notice I did not say admiration. No one single leader is liked by everyone, but if you are consistent, you’ll have their respect. Feelings of fear are occasionally necessary, but should not be the first description as to how people regard you.

Make sure you are holding yourself to the same, if not higher, standards to the people that are working for you. Once people figure out you are inconsistent and going easy on yourself, it’s “Good night, Irene” to your abilities to lead. I’m not sure where leaders fail the most, but this has got to be towards the top of the list.

You have a mirror. Use it. Please engage in some healthy and regular introspection. Please do so when things are going poorly and doubly when things are well.

I’m sure this is not all-encompassing, but it’s a place to start. This doesn’t have to apply to just your work life. It’s probably applicable, in some small measure, to other aspects of life. But I’d like more people in leadership positions to actually go through and spend two or three neurons on the list. If you want to be a leader, you have to know when you need to be last and when you have to go first. In this case, batter up.

Author: Jason Kesselring

I am a 40 year old pediatrician transitioning to a teaching career, happily married, and a father of two wonderful children. I fell out of the Ugly Tree, and hit every branch on the way down.

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