“If you have to tell people that you are the boss, then you are not the boss!”
The statement was simple, but I will never forget it. The day I heard it, I was sitting in a Bible class. The topic of the evening was leadership. I laughed out loud because of how simple and true the statement was. But as the week went on, I found myself replaying it in my mind over and over. It prompted me to make a decision. I didn’t want to be that person – the one so out of touch and insecure that I needed to throw my weight around and remind everyone constantly of how in charge I was.
I would say, looking back on it now, that statement resonating with me was the beginning of my purpose journey. I wasn’t even in a supervisory role at the time, but I knew that I didn’t want to do what I saw everyone else doing. I definitely didn’t want to repeat their failures. I was growing out of the people-pleasing phase of my life and wasn’t interested into conforming to someone else’s idea of leadership.
Was it possible to be someone’s boss, supervise their work, delegate to them, provide them with guidance and criticism when needed and also love and care for who they were as a person? I believed it was true and found that juggling all of those demands and expectations was my niche. I never had to dangle a carrot to get someone to run faster or work harder. I never threatened or belittled. I didn’t lie or keep secrets. I was just Stephanie all day, every day. I worked hard to ensure that I upheld my values personally and professionally so they were never at odds.
Side Note: It’s so much easier to be one person all of the time and not have to maintain separate versions of oneself.
I was transparent, firm, optimistic, kind and caring. I was the opposite of what many would expect a person in a high-stress leadership position to be. I was determined not to take out my stresses and shortcomings on my staff. I took a servant’s approach. They were there to serve the company and me as their supervisor, but I was also there to serve them. If their fundamental needs weren’t being met, then I looked at it as a failure on my part. What resulted was a powerful dynamic of trust and openness that I didn’t see anywhere else in the company. People would comment that my team was “different” and my team members “actually liked each other,” but what they didn’t know was how intentional it was.
While being purposeful in my pursuit of balanced and authentic leadership, I uncovered a purpose that was so intricately woven into the fabric of me, but it was at odds at times with the goals of my employer. I cared more about the individual than I did the often suffocating metrics that hung over my head daily. If someone wanted to quit, I encouraged them to go find the type of work that they were passionate about, even if it made me one person short during the busy season. If someone had a calendar full of appointments, but came to work devastated by the wreckage in their personal life, I sent them home and took on the burden, delegating what I could. When someone needed to cry, vent frustrations, get angry, cuss or ask for personal advice, I offered my office as a safe space.
I took a risk and it was worth it. I had challenges just like any boss does with hiring and firing staff, having tough conversations, dolling out the constructive criticism and not-so-favorable evaluations at times. I would question whether I was doing the right thing. With examples of the opposite before me, I started to feel like maybe I was too soft and cared too much. But I approached each person and each situation with a purpose and for that reason, I have no regrets. I’ve been able to build and maintain wonderful relationships over the years by doing things differently and choosing to connect rather than dictate.
When I had to call someone into the HR office first thing in the morning to tell them they were being let go, discuss severance, request their key and walk them out of the back door, I felt like a failure. But then, the unusual happened – I got a hug from them and a sincere “thank you,” followed by a genuine request to keep in touch. To me, it was triumph amidst the disappointment.
Today, I’m still not the type of person who can work a room full of strangers or walk into a crowd and demand attention. I’ve never had an iron fist. I’m a quiet observer. I have a fantastic photographic memory and an uncanny ability to learn and recall random facts about history, people and places. I come alive when I can talk about purpose and what I’m passionate about. I thrive when I can teach someone something new. I find confidence when I can authentically share my life experience and make someone else’s life better in the process.
My hope for you is that you find your own voice and your own leadership style that allows you to connect with people. It doesn’t matter if you are naturally loud and out front or a behind the scenes supporter. Everyone has a leader in them. The type of leader you desire to be may not be popular, but from my experience, that’s when magic happens.
Allow the leader you are to be an intimate part of you, not just a representative. Be real and be accountable to who you are and upfront about your expectations. Share with people and they will share with you. Learn about the people who look up to and rely on you. If you don’t know who they are, what drives them, their strengths, their limitations or worries you will never truly understand how to lead them effectively.
No, it won’t be easy.
But yes, I can say from experience that it’s worth it.