The raven haired five year old sat defiantly, arms crossed tightly across her chest, as she spied her mother coming through the office door. Alone in the elementary school nurse’s office, she knew there would be trouble, but refused to dismiss her self-righteous anger. However, when she met the concerned gaze of her mother, the little girl dropped her now watering eyes. Together, they sat, mother stroking the long black hair of a now contrite child as the teacher began.

Turns out, the child, who had finished her work earlier than the others, became bored. She tried occupying herself by drawing, but eventually started talking to her neighbors, interrupting their work. To compound her infractions, she decided a game of tag around the room would be really fun and coaxed her companion to join. The result was a trip to the nurse’s office and a call to her mother for the disruptive behavior. As the teacher cited the infractions, the child’s mother tried to stifle a smile, wondering how this teacher (so serious about the incident) decided that teaching Kindergarten was the path for her. She tried to explain to the teacher, that the child’s 4K teacher had come up with busy activities for the child as she often finished her work before the others. But the teacher looked incredulous and suggested to the mother, that she leave teaching to the professionals. The teacher then concluded the lecture by proclaiming the little girl to be an instigator and suggested that some more home training might be in order.

Now indignant herself, the mother gently led the child towards the car so that they could return to their home. Once they exited the building, the mother turned to her now crestfallen young child and kissed her cheek. The little girl, surprised at the gesture, had expected to receive a time-out or even grounding. She asked her mother, “what is an instigator? And does that mean I am bad?” Again, her mother surprised her by laughing out loud.

“No honey, you are not bad. You are smart and charismatic. You search for ways to entertain yourself when you are bored. We need to work on some better ways for you to do that. But you are not bad.”

“But what is an instigator?” the child repeated.

The mother looked at her daughter with love. “That means you are a leader. “

“I don’t want to be a leader, if it gets me in trouble.”

“There are different kinds of leaders,” her mother explained. “You can’t help being a leader, but you can make up your mind to be a leader for good.”

Sometimes Leadership gets a bad rap!

A Leader can be a boss, but not all bosses are leaders. If you know what I mean.

Some people are born to leadership. Others have leadership thrust upon them. Does that mean that they cannot lead? Absolutely not. Leadership is a skill that can be learned and honed.

If you are willing to cast aside the bravado of being the boss, and concentrate on learning to lead, then you accomplish more than just “getting the job done”. You can actually create and cultivate other leaders.

As the director of a large urban county child welfare agency, I participated in a National Clearinghouse Supervision think tank group. Part of the application for joining included questions about leadership and how I assimilated the concept. I thought long an hard about one particular question. “What do you see as your most important goal/task as a leader?” My answer surprised even me, but once written, its truth resonated in my heart. Here is my answer below.

“My primary goal/task as a leader is to utilize the knowledge, skills and abilities I possess in order to recognize, cultivate and challenge new leaders so that I can pass on the passion and drive to them for continuous improvement in child welfare outcomes.”

OK it was a mouthful (but I was applying for a position in a think tank atmosphere, which I got in). But breaking it down to the minute parts= Leaders should not rest on their own authority but strive to create independence and leadership skills in their followers.

What I didn’t say was that poor leadership and management can destroy an agency’s mission. Sometimes I like to read reviews of Social Work/Mental Health/Non-profit agencies. Now there are multiple apps for reading agency reviews. I find that many staff who leave express that the exit was due to the poor supervision received. In other words, they had a bad boss. I have seen a pattern of “bad bosses” over my career. Let’s highlight a few of them and see if you have met these “leaders”.

I Rule By Fear:

Staff under this type of leader tend to leave positions due to the degradation they feel from their superiors. These bosses treat mistakes as personal affronts and retaliate with punitive actions that are geared to shame their subordinates. They rule by fear and intimidation. Just recently I spoke with a colleague from another agency who described the bosses in her organization as threatening. Any error or infraction of a subordinate was met with threats of termination. This colleague described the working atmosphere as tense and uncomfortable.

My Way or the Highway:

Much like the boss who rules by intimidation, this boss is closed to any contradictory feedback. While they don’t necessarily use intimidation, they do use devaluation. This boss might even think they are promoting positivity by not threatening or blatantly calling out their staff for errors. But their hubris reigns supreme. Their plans, their ideas, their processes are the only ones with merit. Others on their team may contradict them, but will receive a condescending smile or perfunctory acknowledgement. Then the plan proceeds uninterrupted as the boss decrees.

I’m Your Friend:

This type of boss wants everyone to like them. They are upbeat and encouraging for the most part. Their leadership style is to do for their staff rather than to train and guide them in the process. Unlike the above boss, the friend wants to hear everyone’s ideas and will try in some way to incorporate everyone’s ideas, even when they are not feasible. This boss does not want anyone to be sad, upset or most importantly to blame them. Unable and unwilling to hold staff accountable, the friend-boss is often not successful until they can overcome their “need to be liked”.

Learning to Lead:

The examples above are just a few archetypes of leaders I have encountered. Trust me there are so many more variants. And just as varied as the inefficient types of leaders are the effective types. True Leadership and good leaders operate by multiple leadership styles. The important take-away is not which style is most effective, but which style is most effective for you. The ability to open yourself up to learning about the different styles and finding your best fit will help you find your leadership style.

Ask yourself this question. Why do I want to be a leader? Once you are honest about the why, you can focus on the how. Next week I will go into the different types of effective leadership styles.

You can be a great leader if that is what you truly want. A leadership mentor is a good way to learn how to lead. But a mentor is just a tool. To lead, you have to act. In other words, Be a Leader for good! Don’t make your life strategy to live around someone else’ campfire.  Go to them, warm your hands  and  watch how they build it, then go and build your own and share your warmth with others.  Because if you don’t start your own fire,  when their fire goes out, you will be in the dark.

8 thoughts on “Learning to Lead

  1. Excellent — especially the ‘set-up’ (the story of the five year old and her mother) leading to your observations about leadership. The ‘human element’ elevates your points about leadership to from coming from a preacher to coming from a Plato (so to speak). 😉

    Liked by 1 person

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