“I asked for that to go out yesterday!” I yelled at the newly hired receptionist, Melinda. “Now, it’s going to be late! I don’t know why it’s so hard to do what I ask. I haven’t asked that much of you!” She’d only been with my company for a couple of weeks and I hadn’t spent much time around her. But here I was, yelling at her. She looked at me as if I’d slapped her. She started apologizing profusely, not knowing what to say to appease me. I snatched the letter out of her hand and made an off-the-cuff comment about how I might as well not even ask her to do anything because it probably wouldn’t get done anyway.
Sadly, that was my first encounter with leadership—and I was not exactly making the best first impression, either. I was 28 years old and had started my own company that year. I had also just had a baby, my husband was working the night shift, and I was running all over town trying to do what I could to keep the new company afloat while sleep-deprived. It was a difficult time, and, unfortunately, I used my authority as an excuse to lead with the weight of my position as opposed to using my head and heart to lead with maturity.
Thankfully, I’ve learned a lot of lessons in leadership in the last 14 years. Not only because I went back to school to get my doctorate degree in Organizational Leadership, but that did help. I also attribute what I’ve learned about leading well to the fact that I’ve surrounded myself with good leaders, both inside and outside of my organization.
I’d like to share with you the valuable lessons of I’ve learned, through five lessons in good leadership.
- Lesson 1: Good leaders build up; poor leaders tear down
Have you heard the phrase ‘praise in public; criticize in private’? I have, and I disagree, and I’ll tell you why. When you praise in public, you’re sending the message that things are going well, that performance is acceptable and you’re happy with the way things are going. In fact, you’re so happy that you’re even drawing attention to their stellar performance by taking the time to offer public comments. But when you criticize in private, your message is contradictory to what you’ve publicly proclaimed. This concept is confusing at best, and lacks consistency with your messaging.
Instead of praising in public and criticizing anyone, good leaders build their team members up and focus on the wins, publicly and privately. Private communication is not an opportunity for condemnation and shame, either. That’s not to say that losses are overlooked, however, but instead of spotlighting and analyzing mistakes and what went wrong, good leaders help others look for opportunities for growth. There is no criticism—public or private.
Lesson of Good Leadership: Positively develop your team, publicly and privately
- Lesson 2: Good leaders set the tone for positive company culture
“I’ve only been there four months and I feel like I’m being set up. My boss tells me he’ll support me 100% but when my team goes above me and talks to him about me, he doesn’t redirect them to address their concerns with me. And now I’ve noticed the HR manager is only giving me half the information I need,” Tammy, my client, said to me in her recent coaching session. She knew the prior person in her had left because she hadn’t been supported in her role, and Tammy confided in me that she was regretting her decision to change companies.
An undermining team can spell disaster for the culture and all employees involved, including the organization. In this case, the culture included lying, manipulating, and backstabbing, and Tammy’s boss, the Area Director, was inadvertently supporting it through not addressing it. As a result, the toxic office environment led a stellar employee like Tammy to ultimately find another job.
A good leader sets the tone for a positive company culture and wouldn’t allow unhealthy behaviors to persist. By appeasing the team and continuing to have company meetings without all sides present, the closed door represented approval and the secrecy resulted in a factional staff. Whether spoken or unspoken, leaders set the cultural tone and dictate what behaviors will and won’t be permissible.
Lesson of Good Leadership: Organizational culture is defined by the spoken and unspoken
- Lesson 3: Good leaders actively listen
“I’ve already said that my team’s exhausted, but you weren’t listening. If you’d just listen you’d know that,” Paul said to his team lead, hitting his hand on the desk in the meeting. She shot her rebuttal back quickly, completely missing the opportunity to listen; she lost the opportunity to lead well. Paul was clearly frustrated, as we all feel when we aren’t being heard, but the point that was missed was the one not being said—the meaning behind the meaning.
Leadership is more than about hearing what people have to say, it’s about actively listening to those around you. Thankfully, active listening is a skill that can be developed over time.
To improve your active listening skills requires more than just the occasional glance in the same direction and ‘uh huh’ or ‘yeah’ during a conversation. Active listeners maintain eye contact, listen for understanding, and take a genuine interest what’s being said. To improve your active listening skills, remain neutral, consider what’s not being said, and ask clarifying questions before jumping to conclusions.
Lesson of Good Leadership: Listen for the spoken and unspoken
- Lesson 4: Good leaders reward candid feedback
Do you remember the tale of the Emperor’s New Clothes? It’s a classic childhood tale about an emperor who wouldn’t listen to feedback that he didn’t want to hear. As a result, he surrounded himself only with people who told him exactly what he wanted to hear and wound up naked in public.
Now, I’m not saying this because I’m worried you’ll show up to your next board meeting in the buff; but I do know there’s extreme value in having people in your corner who’ll tell you the hard stuff, even when you don’t want to hear it. Criticism is never easy to hear, but when you reward candid, honest feedback, you’re setting a standard for others that shows you’re open to grow.
Lesson in Good Leadership: Don’t surround yourself with yes people
- Lesson 5: Good leaders maintain humility
Listening to the older man speak, you’d never guess he was a billionaire. Craig was soft-spoken and honest as he spoke of his failings in business and how he’d learned from his mistakes. He’d made his vast fortune in real estate but maintained an air about him that exuded humility. He spoke of some of the darkest days of his life, when he lost his fortune and felt as if he had nowhere to turn. Even now, decades later, he reflected on that time with thanksgiving, as he recognized that he’d learned so much during the darkness.
There’s an old proverb that says pride comes before a fall, meaning that when you behave with pride and arrogance, failure is likely. Good leaders remind themselves that they are human, and they acknowledge their faults and flaws. They know they will make mistakes and accept that they don’t have all the answers. They are confident in their abilities without being arrogant; they are approachable and humble.
Lesson in Good Leadership: Swallowing pride never choked anyone
I’m thankful I’ve had the opportunity to surround myself with strong leaders who demonstrate characteristics I try to emulate. I’m also thankful for Melinda, who didn’t leave after I yelled at her for not mailing the letter. After 14 years of being in business, she’s still with me and my company.
We both still remember that day, but we reflect back on it now and laugh. She’s forgiven me, and thankfully, seen me grow as a leader; and I’ve seen her grow as a leader, too.
Lessons in good leadership are only effective if you learn from them and put them into practice. What lessons have you learned about ways to behave and not to behave as a leader? I’d love to hear from you.