Have you ever taken a moment to reflect on the essence of a great leader?
Not just during a training session or while reading about leadership, but genuinely pondered the question of what defines an exceptional leader? What sets them apart from the rest?
Throughout my lifetime, I've had the privilege of being led by various individuals, each with their own leadership styles. At times, I willingly embraced leadership roles, while on other occasions, I found myself in such positions due to limited alternatives – but that's a story for another day.
Consider the absolute best leader you've had the privilege of working with. Who were they, and what distinguished them as the absolute best?
Conversely, contemplate the opposite: who was your least favorite leader, and what contributed to their position at the bottom of your list?
For me, there is one individual who stands head and shoulders above the rest – Randy Allen, with whom I worked at McGraw-Hill Education.
The Really, Really Good Leader
Randy embodied the kind of leader who left an indelible mark on me. He invested the time to understand me on a personal level, discovering what truly motivated me. He grasped my aspirations, my professional needs, my strengths, and the areas where I needed improvement.
When I first joined Randy's team, I struggled with keeping up with spreadsheets and tracking my progress toward sales goals. All I wanted was to give my best effort every day without the stress of constantly monitoring my sales targets.
You know what? He never once told me I needed to be concerned.
Eventually, I learned how to manage those reports and incorporate them into my daily routine. Randy, being the exceptional leader he was, knew when to prioritize aspects of my development, when to push me further, and when to allow me time to grow. He guided me to focus on the most critical elements throughout each stage of the process.
But Randy wasn't a rescuer, either. He allowed us to navigate rough waters independently, while ensuring a lifeline was available if we needed it. This taught me self-sufficiency and the importance of relying on my instincts and talents to overcome challenges.
Randy adopted a highly personalized approach to leadership. He tailored his support to the unique needs of each team member, providing guidance and coaching when necessary. As I often say, "Randy could be offering constructive feedback on areas needing improvement, and you'd think he was praising you. Only later, upon reflection, would you realize those conversations were teaching moments."
What set Randy apart as the best of the best? It was his character, competence, and credibility.
He excelled at his job, possessed deep knowledge of the industry, and boasted a track record of success. However, most importantly, he cared about us as whole individuals – acknowledging our emotions, spirits, and physical well-being.
I remember our discussions about family, physical health, spiritual wellness, and personal goals during one-on-one meetings. No topic was off-limits, but Randy knew when to shift the conversation's focus.
Randy excelled at leading his team, demonstrating effective listening and communication skills, inspiring action, and driving each of us toward excellence. It's no wonder his teams consistently ranked at or near the top year after year.
Under his guidance, I learned invaluable lessons about leadership by observation and by being part of his team.
On the flip side, I encountered a manager who represented the polar opposite of leadership. I hesitate to even call him a leader; no, he was a boss. Let's call this boss, John.
John was a micro-manager and a tyrant. He belittled his employees, engaged in gossip, publicly criticized them, and occasionally terminated individuals just to reinforce that they were dispensable. He fostered a climate of fear throughout the workplace.
As someone often in teaching or training roles, I became a trusted confidant for many employees across different departments, perhaps because I was viewed as their teacher rather than their boss. They'd confide in me, closing my office door to vent their frustrations.
Unfortunately, I was in no position to “fix” many of their problems, as he was my supervisor and there wasn’t really anyone “above” him at that organization; however, I did my best to encourage and inspire these people. We talked about their feelings, and we talked about their goals. I didn’t see it then, but looking back, I can see how I was intentionally being the opposite of what we experienced from John.
Lacking an avenue for addressing my own concerns, I sought counsel from my pastor's wife during my tenure under John. I'll always remember her words: "Amy, do your work as if you're working for the Lord and not for man." I carried those words with me daily, before driving to the office and throughout my workday.
Amy, do your work as if you’re working for the Lord and not for man.
The difference between Randy and John was profound. One inspired me to reach my full potential, while the other instilled so much fear that I kept my head down and my mouth shut.
One encouraged continuous growth, while the other kept me trapped in the monotonous grind. One cultivated excellence, while the other never allowed me a chance to shine.
The Choice is Yours
Leadership takes on various forms and wields a profound influence on those around us.
You have the power to choose your leadership style. Will you inspire, uplift, support, coach, and nurture your team, or will you criticize, condemn, and stifle their creativity?
Rather than telling you the traits of a really, really good leader, I encourage you to consider what you have experienced in your own life. And then decide what you will do.
Will you be a true leader, or will you choose to simply manage your team? Will you choose to inspire creativity and growth, or will you choose to stifle the talents of those around you? What type of leader will you choose to be?
Truly, it’s no one’s choice but your own.