My mother, even now at 77 years old, is a force to be reckoned with. She has always been and continues to be fiercely independent, having her own mind and going full throttle to accomplish her plans. Her steam may be less intense as she walks her path, but the determination burns just as bright.
She married at 16 and gave birth to Greg at 18…me at 19 and Tony at 21. When I think about my own daughter at those ages, it floors me how she was able to parent so well considering she was still a child.
As a mother, she wanted her children to be strong leaders, carving out our niche fearlessly in the world. She preached to us constantly about the dangers of being blind followers.
“Stay with the right group!”
“Don’t get mixed up in things that will bring you down!”
“Don’t be a follower!”
But, of course we balked. Bristling like untamed horses fighting a brand new bit, we would tug at the reins and attempt to make our choices even when it hurt.
You cannot know how many times, when I was given a directive with which I did not agree, I would point out her unfairness.
I would tell her that my friend Suzie didnt have to go to bed at 9….or eat vegetables that were gros or……well, you get it.
Mom’s favorite reply was:
“If Suzie jumped off a bridge right now would you do it too?”
Just an aside…why did my mom have a fixation of children jumping off bridges? I dont know. But what can you say to that?
Or more likely, I would angrily shake my dark brown curls as I spun away to flounce off in disgust.
And so it went. Throughout my childhood…there was a constant tug of war between me and my mother.
But…eventually I grew up.
And I realized that I was fiercely independent too.
In my early career, being independent and head strong was both a blessing and a curse.
The blessing of being promoted quickly and often led to the curse of having multiple different supervisors with more personalities and leadership styles than you could imagine.
But, I must admit that I learned from every supervisor placed over me (even the bad ones…and there were a few). To be truthful, sometimes I just learned what NOT to do…but at least I learned.
One of the best supervisors I worked under (lets call her Sherry) taught me the importance of supervising individuals individually. She took the time to know the staff in her unit. She listened to them and learned about them. That assessment allowed her to give each worker what they needed.
Under Sherry’s leadership, Kate (a co-worker of mine) worked circles around most of her unit mates. She came early, left late, turned in all documentation on time and saw all of her children regularly. Kate was great! That is, when she felt valued. Her motivation for hard work came from the validation of her worth. She required that verbal validation to keep going. My supervisor knew that about Kate and gave it to her. I asked Sherry once why she gave Kate constant affirmation. She smiled at me and said, “If that is what she needs from me to keep making an impact, I am happy to give it. Affirmation costs me nothing but gets these kids everything.”
I was also a pretty motivated worker in that unit. But, Sherry did not shower me with affirmation. Was she being unfair? Not at all. She knew me too. I didn’t want constant validation. In fact, it made me uncomfortable. Sherry knew that in order to validate my work, she gave me space and increasing responsibility. Not to say I was a free agent with no supervision. But once I had proven competency in a task, she was less hands on with me.
Sherry also had to put up with my young arrogance and my assertion of “I got this” even when I didn’t. And, I sometimes strayed too far on my own without permission because I was so sure I knew what I had to do. Sherry would quickly give a gentle “yank” to set me back on course. When I saw that “look” I knew I would be having a discussion with my supervisor that day.
But that was her gift…her leadership style. Without lectures or even a “big stick”, she taught me so much.
The most important lesson I learned came later in my professional development after I had become a supervisor with the same agency but in another county.
My new manager could be characterized as “no-nonsense” but in actuality was a humorless, rigid yardstick. There was no pliability. Just her word…which was law!
Again the wild maverick, I bristled and fought the reins held so tightly that they cut into my mouth. I often reared and challenged her to corral me.
Which she did.
I did not believe in her rigid views. I did not want to go down the long and winding path she set before me. There were straighter, easier paths that were better.
I hated my job at that time. I hated her leadership. I wanted to quit.
Although a few years had passed since I worked with Sherry, I called her for help. Spilling out all of the indignities I had suffered under this manager, I wanted her to bless my decision to quit.
Sherry listened quietly. There was an awkward pause on the line and somehow, in my mind’s eye, I knew she was giving me the “look”.
“Angie” she said. “If you want to be a good leader, you must learn how to follow”.
She went on to explain that I had set up an impasse that only I could breach. I wanted to argue, but hearing it out loud , her words rang true. Sherry challenged me to stop, listen and learn what the manager wanted from me and give it.
So, I did. The results were very positive. Instead of forcing every issue in which we disagreed, I learned how to follow her style. She hadnt been trying to thwart me at every move. That was my own stubbornness talking. I learned we shared similar ideas on outcomes needed just had very different ideas on how to achieve them.
I have to admit that it was humbling to discover her methods were every bit as effective as my own. And some were even more well planned.
We never became great friends. But I tempered my own stubbornness and allowed myself to learn. In doing so, I grew in maturity and professionalism.
Sherry’s words never left me.
You can never be a good leader until you learn how to follow.
So, from the first subordinate experience with Sherry through a myriad of other leaders, I have carried that mantra with me.
And I have learned that good leaders can build capacity, coach competancy and inspire you to achieve more than you thought possible.
And poor leaders, if you allow it, can make you second guess yourself, feel less capable and break down creativity and initiative.
But…you can survive a bad leader if you decide to get your motivation and inspiration intrinsically. Learn what they expect from you and give it. But then, allow yourself to give more…be more…than the box in which you are placed.
I thought back on my mom’s challenge again.
So, if Sherry or another great leader in my life jumped off a figurative bridge (If they pushed me out of my comfort zone and led me into uncharted territory.)..would I follow?
Hmmm. Yes. Most likely, I would.