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Things I Have Learned: Unsolicited Leadership Advice for Everybody

Thing #1: Get to know yourself really, really well

I am the kind of person who takes EVERYTHING personally. You could sneeze, and I would think that somehow my presence had caused dust eddies to be stirred up that would not have otherwise been there, which may lead you to have a sinus infection which will eventually cause you to die horribly of hemorrhaging. I can blame myself for totally unrelated, incongruous events. But as an occasional teacher, and as a brand-spanking new manager, I know that the behavior of the people I have some small amount of power over is NOT an indication of my qualifications or basic intelligence. It can, however, be a reflection of my level of competence with and/or comfort level in whatever area I am providing leadership. If one of my students or employees is giving me a hard time, then it might be an issue they’re having, but if several of them are unhappy or unproductive guess what? I am bound to be at least partially responsible.

This leader thing is relatively new for me. I have been in the follower position far more in my life thus far. And when I have felt victimized, belittled, abused, intimidated, or even just challenged by a boss or teacher, I have spent a goodly amount of energy trying to tease apart the dynamic and understand what part of my (generally disproportionate) negative reaction is my own crap, and how much of that crap belongs to someone else. It’s rarely an all or nothing proposition, folks. So while I continue to be on the neurotic and hypersensitive side, I also have a pretty clear picture of a number of my strengths and weaknesses. Now when I have to deal with an authority figure who doesn’t seem to have their shit together, I can keep it in slightly better perspective.

But here’s the thing I know from having been in the down position for most of my life (and seems really obvious to me as a newbie leader):

Thing #2:
If you are in a position of relative power over someone else DO NOT take their perceived failures or inadequacies personally.

This is very important. If you take your students’ or employees’ or children’s weaknesses personally this means that you feel (usually unconsciously) that their poor performance is a reflection on you and will make you look bad to your superiors or peers, then you will probably blame your employees or students or children for your own sense of inadequacy. You will then be likely to behave in a way that is less than objective when giving feedback or criticism. In short, your negative emotions will inhibit your ability to do your job, which is to support, help and teach the people you’re serving as a leader or teacher or parent.

Let’s have an example, shall we?
My last voice teacher was amazingly talented. His singers had substantial careers and my technique improved significantly during the two years I studied with him. But he wasn’t objective. When I had a big performance or audition coming up, he would start to freak out. I could almost see the thought bubbles over his head, “What if she gives a bad audition, and the judges know she studies with me, and everyone thinks I’m losing my edge and taking on poor students?” So he would go from a demanding but nurturing and supportive teacher, to an abusive, autocratic bastard. He would make disparaging comments, force me to repeat passages over and over again (screaming out a high C ten times in a row generally does not make it get any better, trust me). My favorite comment ever came during one especially grueling sessions. He said, “It’s really a testament to my teaching that I can work with a problem voice like yours.”

Yeah, he really said that.

I had to explain to him gently (yelling is gentle, right?) that that type of comment made me feel hopelessly inadequate, and did not motivate me to do anything except perhaps throw my metal music stand at his head and leave. And it did not make me sing better. He told me he’d meant it as a compliment.

It’s basic, folks. You discourage and degrade people, they give up or they have less energy and less hope. None of those things make people productive, competent, or successful. Don’t do it. You can tell me about tough love, about pushing people to excel, but tough love is not abuse. Humiliating or denigrating people does not make them better performers or humans, it just makes you an abusive bastard.

Thing #3
Forgive yourself for being an abusive bastard, and move on.

If you have power, you will inevitably abuse it at some point. It will probably be unintentional, and it will hopefully be minor. So if you realize that you’ve been attacking an employee or student because you’re secretly afraid that they’re going to make you look bad, or your son’s habit of shuffling around with his shoes untied makes you feel like a bad parent and you’re a little too hard on the kid, recognize your own flaws, make amends, breathe deeply, and move the fuck on.

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