If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.
John Quincy Adams
Possibly due to the excessive amount of jobs I have held, I have had more than my share of managers during my career. A fair guess would be 30. Of those 30, I would suggest that maybe only 3 of them were true leaders.
To me, a leader is someone who motivates you to work hard, encourages you to succeed and supports you to make your own decisions.
Probably the most inspiring leader I have had was only recently. This man stood apart almost immediately from all my previous bosses as a leader to follow.
As this man is so humble and some of my comments are relatively personal, I will protect his anonymity and call him Jim.
I had been working for this particular company for around 6 months. I enjoyed the role I had but found the culture depressing. The nature of my work revolved around death but that wasn’t the aspect that made the environment so unpleasant. Many of the staff had ‘existed’ in the business for far too long and were set in their ways. Processes were complicated and convoluted but any suggestion of innovation was quashed immediately. I will call these people ‘Stalwarts’ for the purpose of this post.
Due to the fact that so many of the stalwarts were never going to move, the only opportunity for progression was through their retirement or death. Neither of those options seemed remotely possible in the near future, so it was a trying place to work.
Then along came Jim. For the first two weeks, Jim scheduled appointments with every staff member to discuss their roles. He wanted to know if they enjoyed their work, what issues they had, what they wanted to learn and what they wanted to do. As Jim was new to all of us, I bet I wasn’t the only one that held back a bit as I didn’t want to say something that would later bite me in the butt. As it turns out, I needn’t have worried, he was just demonstrating open communication and a willingness to know each team member.
Jim then ruffled feathers by asking everyone in the business to provide process flows for each of their work actions. As part of this, he asked that everyone highlight areas where there were bottlenecks in a process and provide suggestions how to improve.
The stalwarts were outraged! ‘He doesn’t know the business!!’ was the common cry. That was exactly the point but they didn’t get it. He was a pair of fresh eyes that weren’t jaded by years of doing things the way they were always done. He was looking for people to look outside the box and innovate.
This didn’t sit too well with the stalwarts. They knew what worked and the old saying ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ seemed good enough for them. Times had changed and better techology existed but they were having none of it. If it worked for the last decade, why bother changing it.
Jim persisted. The response was as expected. The stalwarts submitted their responses that indicated everything was running as good as it possibly could. The newer staff did the same but highlighted many process issues that need rectifying.
Jim was making people think for themselves. He wasn’t dictating how things would change, he was empowering people to come together with their job skills and experience to make a better business.
Jim had an uphill battle for sure. This wasn’t an open-minded group culture. The stalwarts found every reason why something couldn’t work. Jim asked them for ways it could work. Jim’s reasoning was that if he found out how something could work, then he would know if it should work. He wasn’t about change for change sake but he did want to know if there were a better way. Things started slowly to change for the better. Systems improved and output improved. I’m sure the stalwarts wouldn’t admit it but change was good.
Jim also encouraged individual development and progression. He welcomed and almost enforced, rotation through various roles to increase staff understanding of the whole business and to improve their opportunity for career progression. As you could imagine, this came with some pushback from the stalwarts, who were stuck in their ways and their jobs.
Jim persisted though. Bit by bit, he continued to change the culture of the business. He fully understood that their were some people who wouldn’t change but he would improve the business for those that were ready for the ride. The place was becoming a better environment to work. I had rotated into a role I didn’t really enjoy but it didn’t matter that much as I was working in a more open and enjoyable work environment.
Jim was the epitome of leading by example. Almost without fail, Jim was there when I arrived at work and when I left for the day. This is despite the numerous difficulties that Jim was experiencing in his life.
- Jim only had one leg though I didn’t know for several months as he got around so quickly on his prosthetic leg.
- Jim had cancer. He was undertaking treatment for it and often times was grey and clammy. Yet, he only occasionally took a day off or left early for the day.
- His father died. Obviously, Jim took a few days off for this but worked on.
- And lastly, his mother developed Alzheimer’s and had to be moved to a home.
Only the first point didn’t happen in the 6 months I worked with him. He was going through very trying times. But Jim didn’t whine and complain. I only knew about his problems through someone close to him. Jim was not going to use his own problems as an excuse for not doing his job. It certainly made me reconsider having a sickie when I would wake up with a tickle in my throat. I wouldn’t necessarily advocate his work ethic, particularly while ill but it certainly was inspiring.
Probably the most impressive part of Jim’s leadership was his encouragement of people to progress. I have worked for so many managers that subtlety (and not so subtle sometimes) undermined my achievements and bruised my confidence. I think in part this was to confirm their status as the boss but also as a means to retain staff.
Jim was the opposite, he praised every achievement across the business….but only with permission. He made people feel important and an asset to the business. As I said earlier, he rotated people to increase their confidence that they had the capacity to learn and adapt. He was building our confidence to succeed and did his best to support people, even if this meant he may lose staff.
I started to apply for a number of jobs outside the company. Not because I was desperate to get out anymore but because I was instilled with confidence in my ability. I secured my current job very quickly. Jim was very supportive and actually provided a verbal reference to the new business that they should employ me.
On my last day, I met with Jim and expressed my admiration for him and that he motivated me to be a better worker and achieve more. Jim’s reaction surprised me. He started to tear up and the tissues came out. It was an awkward moment but I was pleased the same that he understood someone really appreciated him as a leader.
I still see Jim now and again in my current job. He will be on his way to work very early. I have to start early but he wants to. I know he’s in a rush but he always stops and has a quick chat regardless. Did I mention he is a top guy as well?
If I’m lucky, I might have a leader like Jim again. If not, at least I have learnt some lessons on how to support and encourage people that I will use when mentoring new staff.