Leading by example

Leadership is a subject that I’ve had an ongoing fascination with, probably for the last decade, if not longer. My interest in what characterizes effective leadership was born from a place where there weren’t abundant models of leadership available, at least based upon what my minimalist expectations were in leaders in the workplace at the time.

At that point in my career, I was employed by a well-known insurer, an industry leader. This company regularly received recognition as one of the best places in Maine to work, year after year. That surprised me because my 3+ years there were not a pleasant stretch. The best thing I can say about my time with this employer is that it provided me with the push to begin developing my craft as a writer, searching for books about self-improvement and personal growth, and launching me forward on the journey that I’ve been on for the past decade. So I’m grateful for the prompt they provided me in developing a new approach, and helping me begin figuring out what I was good at, instead of continuing my procession from one mediocre employer to another.

All too often, what passed for leadership at every place I worked at after entering the workforce full-time in 1982, following the demise of a promising baseball career at UMaine, was someone promoted up through the ranks, who had reached their zenith of effectiveness, maxing out their skills and qualities necessary for leading and inspiring others. There was actually a popular book on that subject in the early 1970s that I read when I was in high school.

Growing up in a home with blue-collar values, leadership was often modeled by my grandfather, or my father saying, “you need to help out,” and then leading the way by their own examples. My Opa and my Dad (as well as my Uncle Bob) taught me the valuable lessons of what work was all about. While the work was rarely glamorous and demanded strength and perseverance, there were always clear expectations. I was also working as part of a cohesive team, moving towards a well-defined common goal. This wasn’t Harvard Business School stuff, but practical to the max, and looking back, pretty damn effective modeling. I also learned a little bit from them about what it meant to be a man.

When I was about 10 or 11, I actually heard my father telling my mother about managers or supervisors where he worked that he obviously didn’t care for, or have much respect for. I still remember some of their names. They sounded a bit like the men and women that I’d later work for. These men were weak, afraid to make tough choices, and worse, often nothing more than lackeys fulfilling the wishes of upper level management that might be concerned merely about profits, not people. While my father worked for managers who were men, this lack of leadership and ability to manage people is certainly not limited to gender. I’ve reported to several women that were just as bad, if not worse, than the lousy male bosses that I had to take orders from over the years.

So what is effective leadership? Here are some basic characteristics that I think a leader should embody and these are some of the things that are likely to inspire and promote exceptional performance in workers. This list is far from being exhaustive, but it’s a good start if you want to get people like me to follow you; I’m guessing these work for many other people, also:

  • Tell the truth
  • Effective communication
  • Care about your people
  • Be willing to back your people even if it means that you take some heat for it
  • Don’t sugarcoat reality
  • Be compassionate
  • Walk it, don’t just talk it
  • Work longer hours than I do
  • Know a few things about me and what I’m passionate about
  • Be committed to your own personal growth
  • Read a few books and share them with your staff

There are plenty of other places to get some tips on how to manage and inspire your people. The shelves of bookstores are crammed full of books about leadership, but for some reason, most leaders that I’ve been around seem to be unaware of them.

I spent plenty of time coaching when I was in my 20s and 30s, all of these assignments voluntary ones. I took my responsibility as a coach and leader seriously. I usually read a book on coaching each year prior to the season, so I would be a better coach than I was the year before. I’m happy to say that I rarely had a losing season or missed the playoffs. I was tough and demanding, but I think players that played for me respected the effort I brought to the task. I worked hard and was always willing to do whatever was necessary to help them succeed as players and take their skills to the next level, maximizing their potential.

My time spent around baseball has me watching the Bobby Valentine Experience in Boston, closely. For a man who seemed so sure of himself in New York, with the Mets, and before that in Texas, he seems shell-shocked after 14 15 games in Boston.

Boston’s previous manager, Terry Francona, was the type of manager that never went to the press about players. In fact, he always erred in the opposite direction from Valentine’s approach, whose MO has always included taking player issues to the media. The latter approach two weeks into the season doesn’t seem to be going too well right now with his squad.  I also don’t understand the motivation of players like Josh Beckett and some of the other Sox malcontents last September, in light of how Francona cultivated relationships with his players. It makes it doubly difficult to sympathize with players who quit on probably one of the best and certainly, the most successful Red Sox manager of the modern era.

So what models of leadership are you embracing?

One thought on “Leading by example

  1. Love this one Jim. Your leadership list is spot on.

    I don’t miss the days at the rat maze. Best employer in Maine? Maybe if you are a mindless zombie.

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