In the movie, “The American President,” Michael J. Foxx’s character implores the President, played by Michael Douglas, to take a public stand and address the American people. He says, “People want leadership…They’re so thirsty for it, they’ll crawl through the desert toward a mirage, and when they discover there’s no water, they’ll drink the sand.” Whereupon Douglas’s character responds, “People don’t drink the sand because they’re thirsty. They drink the sand because they don’t know the difference.” Sadly, this description often holds true for our employees. They want good leadership, but they may not recognize it. Conversely, managers and supervisors want to be good leaders, but they tend to make the same mistakes their own managers made because that is what they know.
Anyone who has ever assumed a new leadership position with greater responsibilities has that initial moment of self doubt. “How do I do this?” we say to ourselves. “How will I get people to follow me?” My advice to every new manager can be summed up into one simple sentence: “Lead the way you would want to be led.”
There is a reason you were promoted into this new position. You have skills and abilities that set you apart. You demonstrated those abilities, which brought you success. Now that you are a leader, create an environment in which your employees can thrive, much the same way you did. Everyone wants to be encouraged and coached. Too often, however, a new manager immediately becomes a dictator or micro-manager because they think that is what a management job is all about.
Earlier in my career, I was promoted by our company President to run a region that, while busy, was suddenly failing. The OSB market had uncharacteristically made a huge run up in the fall of that year and caught our lumberyards with pricing to their builder customers that was drastically underwater. My first action before I had even stepped foot in the region was to send my new regional commodity buyer a detailed email, telling him that I wanted a full detailing of all of our outstanding OSB contracts, a list of our OSB inventory, a projection of our OSB needs for the rest of the year, and his account of how we got into this mess. I wrote him that we would sit down together and review this situation as soon as I got into town. I also copied my company President on the email so he knew I was “fully engaged in fixing this problem.”
I soon got a call from my boss, asking that I come into his office. He had read my email and asked me why I had sent it. I told him that I wanted to start fixing this problem, so I had sent the email so that everything would be ready when I got into town. My boss sighed and took off his glasses, which he typically did when he wanted to make a point.
“As a leader, think of what inspired you to be good at your job, to work a little longer, or to try a little harder. Use those same things to inspire the people reporting to you.”
He said, “Russ, put yourself in this guy’s shoes. You have a new boss and a big problem that you didn’t create, but you now have to be part of solving it. Your new boss sends you this email with guns-a-blazing, demanding answers without taking the time to meet you or even asking your opinion. How motivated are you going to be to help fix this problem, let alone work for this new guy?” His words hit me right between the eyes. I definitely would not want to work for “that guy,” and “that guy” was me. From that moment on, I have always tried to look at my actions and listen to my words from the perspective of those who I was leading.
As a leader, think of what inspired you to be good at your job, to work a little longer, or to try a little harder. Use those same things to inspire the people reporting to you. Make it your mission to set yourself apart from run-of-the-mill managers by getting feedback from those around you. Be self-reflective; make sure you yourself would buy what you are trying to sell. If you spend just a little time doing this, you will find that instead of your people drinking sand, they will follow your lead and drink your Kool-Aid.