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Rob and Tom - Part 1

Tom heard his phone buzz, looked down at it, and smiled; it is a text from Rob, a young coworker who had accepted a new position in the company as a team lead. His new role is several hundred miles away, and Tom is missing their weekly lunches.


Putting his hands behind his head, he leans back in his office chair and remembers Rob, fresh out of college, so full of enthusiasm for his new position with the company. He put a recommendation for Rob to join the company at the end of Rob’s internship. Rob shares his natural curiosity about many things and bonded with him as a mentor. Two years on and now Rob is beginning the largest test of his young career.


Rob: Hey Tom, I start my new position in a couple of days. I don’t mind saying I am a nervous wreck. I study leadership and listen to leadership podcasts. It seems everyone has their own take on it. With so many ”experts” and their steps and laws of leadership, the leadership water gets muddied.

Tom: Rob, it is good to hear from you! I was waiting to communicate with you until your move slowed down. Like you, I find leadership interesting to study. A majority of what you see and read about is on the concept of servant leadership. I practice many of the servant leadership concepts. Looking at all the leadership noise, you will find a narrow set of core principals. The mud you observe is leadership gurus needing to separate themselves from the crowd. I want you to think about what those core principles might be.


Tom: An exercise I did with my children as they started working in high school was to point out examples in their workplace of good and bad leadership. I wanted them to file those away for future reference. Chances are they will end up as leader in their career. You have experienced different workplaces. Look back at what you consider good and bad leadership.


Rob: Overlapping principals of servant leadership includes empathy, listening, trust, stewardship, building up others. There are more, but this is off of the top of my head. It seems I need a list at my desk so I can be sure I am staying on track with them.


Tom: Making a list of principles is good for creating your leadership style, but it is not good to use for a checklist. I find too many young “leaders” burn themselves out attempting to comply with a list generated by “experts”. They add pressure to themselves, trying to maintain the perfect leadership balance. Soon they are hopping from leadership fire to another leadership fire. Instead, do you see something in common with what you would list?


Rob: I understand where the list is, a list of being a good person. I mean, this is how I should be, whether or not I am at work. It seems if you are living these principles twenty-four hours a day, they would soon become a natural part of you.


Tom: Exactly, servant leadership is not something you turn on and off. It is who you are and not a list. Many leadership gurus say you can teach leadership to anyone. I agree to a point. You can teach the principals of leadership, but the student has to want to live the principals to be effective. People will quickly spot a person who is not a committed servant leader. Once you lose credibility as a leader, it is very hard to gain back. Your people want you to be honest in your leadership, regardless of your style.


Rob: I am getting the picture of true leadership being a simple concept rather than something complex. The more complicated you make leadership, the easier it is to fail.


Tom: You are beginning to view the overall picture. I wanted you to discover the big picture on your own. I often search for the big picture before filling in the details. You will get the leadership start you desire if start your leadership journey by not getting bogged down with detail. There is time enough to explore the details.


Rob: Pondering the first day and I have not decided just how I should approach it.


Tom: What is important to you?


Rob: Well, everyone needs to get to introduce themselves. We do need to work as a team. In order for them to follow me as a leader, they will need to trust that I have their backs.


Tom: There is something you left out. Expectations on what they can expect from you, the team lead and what you expect from them. You are the leader. Unlike what you read, your group will want to be involved in decision making and they will want you to decide. It is human nature for it to be this way.


Rob: I had not considered setting expectations as part of my introduction. It makes sense from the beginning that, as the leader, I set expectations for the group. Of the places I worked, when the leader sets the expectations, work flows much better.


Tom: Consider expectations as an empty container. The container boundary is the group expectations and how to meet the expectations is flexible and developed inside the container. It is called freedom within a framework. I expect you will find the concept of freedom within a framework to be useful throughout your career.


Rob: I get it. A group needs the rigidity of expectations with the flexibility of being able to adapt to meet those expectations.


Tom: I feel like setting expectations is not talked about in leadership enough. If you think about it, a leader is a mentor, a coach, a cheerleader and at times has to put their foot down and say this is the way we are moving forward. Not everything can be left for the team to buy in. They hired you to move your department forward. Only experience will teach the wisdom of how to apply each.


Tom: My father tells the story of when he worked at a piano manufacturer as a plant manager. He approached the sanding department, intending to review the processes. The employees in the sanding department explained to him they would rather take care of the operation of the department. His response was you know what is expected for quality and schedule. As long as you meet those expectations, I will stay out of it. They held up their end of the deal and he held up his.

Rob: That is a great example.


Tom: He has an example of when setting expectations and then being too rigid. He was the production manager at an office furniture manufacturer. In working to improve efficiency in the plant, he and the drawer building supervisor set up a drawer building station. They set up the tools and workflow for the builder. One day they walked past, and the builder had rearranged the station. They asked him why he had rearranged the work area and he replied, you made this station for a right-handed person, and I am left-handed.


Rob: I can recognize as a leader, observation and asking questions before acting can save headaches. A carefully crafted process can go wrong if you do not confer with the people doing the work.


Tom: It is important to maintain credibility if you are going to receive honest answers. Too many times, a manager will ask questions about a process only to use the answer to criticize the employee or trap them in an impossible situation. That manager will only get answers to please the boss from then on.


Rob: Ok, Tom, so on my first day I need to lead by example and share my story and expectations before having the group to introduce themselves.


Tom: It is important to set achievable expectations. Even more important is to live up to the expectations you set for yourself with the group. I know with careful consideration you will have a great first day.


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