Over the past few weeks, I’ve been writing about the various characteristics and perspectives leaders need to have to be successful in bringing out the best in those they lead. Sharing some of these insights has brought to mind a question I was asked recently following one of my presentations on leadership.
The question I was asked revolved around how can a leader encourage those under their care to challenge their assumptions of what they’re capable of in order to help them to grow and evolve into stronger contributors to their organization’s vision.
I decided to answer this question by sharing a personal example of a leader I worked with who not only inspired me to dream bigger, but who encouraged me to challenge how I viewed myself and the contributions I could make.
Given the positive response I got from the other audience members, I decided this would be a good story to share with my readers to continue our discussion on how we can bring out the best in those we lead, especially in the face of the growing demands and distractions we face every day at work.
Dan was the president of a biotechnology company where I served in my first middle management role. Now, the interesting thing about Dan is that when you first meet him, he can seem a bit intimidating, not only because he’s quite tall (I’m sure he was a star player on his high school’s basketball team), but because he had this air of quiet confidence and assuredness about him.
And yet, when you talk with him, he had this way about him that made you feel quickly at ease around him, where you no longer saw him as the top dog in the organization, but as someone who was there to help you out if he can.
One of my fondest memories of working with Dan revolves around the numerous one-on-one meetings I had with him in his office. Whenever he saw me waiting outside his corner office near the secretary’s desk, he’d greet me with a warm smile and invite me to take a seat next to his desk.
What was interesting about these meetings was how I’d end up doing most of the talking. On some occasions, Dan would share a detail or two to help me gain a better understanding of the situation. But for the most part, Dan relied more on asking me questions both to understand where things were at, as well as to shine a light on areas where he thought I should look into more before going forward.
The reason why I remember these meetings so fondly was because they ended up opening doors to opportunities I had never imagined taking on when I first started in this management role. Opportunities like overseeing the logistics of merging another company into our organization, scouting property locations for a possible new head office, and even working with a team of architects to help plan and design the new expansion wing for our facility.
All of these initiatives were things I had never done before and yet, every time these ideas and proposals came up through our discussions, Dan never hesitated in encouraging me to take the lead in overseeing the process of bringing them to fruition.
Unfortunately, as is the case with most great bosses, the time I got to work with Dan was cut short when he accepted an offer for a new leadership position in another organization. Before Dan left, I asked him why he never questioned my ability to lead these various initiatives that I brought to his attention, given that I had no prior experience to prove that I could do the job.
Dan just smiled and told me how he heard in those conversations that drive we all have to be more than we are today. That the ideas and suggestions I had put forth would not only challenge me to become a more valued member of his team, but they would make me feel a greater level of commitment to the organization’s success and growth.
As such, he wanted to encourage that drive I displayed to take on these new challenges because he knew that even if I failed, I would treat those setbacks as lessons that I had learn in order to keep moving forward to becoming a stronger contributor to the organization’s shared purpose.
Now the reason why I wanted to share this story is because it demonstrates that the way we bring out the best in those we lead is often found in the most simple of gestures and efforts.
Dan understood that a leader’s job is to create an environment where people know they matter and deserve to be heard [Share on Twitter]. That’s why in those impromptu meetings I had with Dan, he always made me feel welcomed and that he appreciated hearing from me. Knowing that he counted on me to bring my best to the work I did drove me to push myself because I knew I was doing work that mattered.
Another important leadership lesson Dan revealed in these conversations was that a leader’s focus shouldn’t be on giving answers, but on championing their employees to discover them [Share on Twitter]. That you recognize that your responsibility is not to provide solutions for the problems your employees have, but to give them the guidance and support to tap into their native talents, experiences, and insights to discover the best course of action going forward.
That’s why I developed the habit of carrying around this spiral notebook in which I wrote various notes and ideas because I knew Dan had this expectation that I would provide some of the answers to what we were discussing, instead of relying solely on him to figure out what we needed to do next.
The impact of those conversations still resonate with me today as I still use spiral notebooks to track my various ideas and conversations, not to mention the fact that it’s also the key feature in the design of my website.
Looking back at the time I spent working under Dan and those numerous conversations we had, the one lesson I continue to carry with me every day is the idea that we shouldn’t view ourselves in terms of what we do today, but in what we can achieve tomorrow [Share on Twitter]. That we instill in ourselves that belief and trust that we can do more and be more than we are today by challenging our assumptions about ourselves and what’s possible.
Of course, believing in our potential for greatness requires a leader who believes in that as well [Share on Twitter]. That they show that faith and trust in our abilities by giving us the permission to fail and the support we need to pick ourselves back up so that we might learn how we can grow and evolve into that better version of ourselves.
In some of my leadership talks, I share with my audience this quote from Maya Angelou:
People may not remember exactly what you did or what you said, but they will always remember how you made them feel.”
When I think about what made Dan one of the best leaders I ever had the pleasure to work with, I don’t think about what achievements our organization attained under his leadership. But what does come to mind is the way he made me and so many of those who worked under him feel about our contributions, our abilities, and ourselves.
No doubt this is why when Dan announced his decision to leave our company to lead another organization, many of us were hoping we might be able to join him in his new endeavour – not because of the work he’d be doing in this new organization, but because of how he helped us to see the greatness that existed in each of us and how we could make that a part of the work we do.
Dan was the kind of leader who understood that it’s a leader’s job to help their employees grow into shining stars in their organization [Share on Twitter]. And that’s exactly what each of us felt like under his leadership – that his focus wasn’t on his own accomplishments, but on how he could inspire us to bring our full selves to the work we do because we knew it mattered.
Indeed, if there’s one message we can all benefit from in Dan’s example it’s that all of us need to make sure we’re creating a workplace environment that compels people to not only believe in their full potential, but that we’re giving them the support and encouragement they need to push themselves to reach for it.
Dan epitomized the idea that we shouldn’t limit ourselves and our leadership to the everyday work, but to a vision and purpose that’s not only bigger than ourselves, but one that brings out the best in all who join us in helping to make it a reality.
It’s why to this day, Dan remains as one of the best leaders I’ve ever had the chance to work with because he demonstrated that leadership is not about you, but about your ability to bring out the best in those you lead [Share on Twitter].